The UEFA Champions League did throw up many intriguing draws. While fans would certainly be enticed by games like Paris Saint-Germain against Borussia Dortmund or Bayern Munich against Chelsea, the Napoli against Barcelona could be a pleasant surprise for the neutrals.
Napoli were not expected to be the favourites, as they got rid of Carlo Ancelotti two months ago. A less-able boss in Rino Gattuso came in, as the club was dealing with instability. Ancelotti’s prowess in Europe had seen them beat Liverpool and hold them to a draw at Anfield. But he could not deal with the toxic situation at the club.
Their inability to keep a solid midfield with the 4-4-2 saw them get overrun in midfield time and time again. That was a constant problem.
But the partenopei have gone about fixing their issues in midfield about perfectly. A ball-winning midfielder in Diego Demme brings a much-needed presence in midfield. The former RB Leipzig man has already been impressive for the club, helping them to wins over Lazio and Juventus.
Bringing Demme in has seen Gattuso bring the 4-3-3 back, with another summer signing in Stanislav Lobotka play as the central midfielder. Having two midfielders who can maintain the compactness of the side makes sure that Fabian Ruiz plays slightly further forward.
That’s what happened against Juve. While it was Piotr Zielinski who had the box to box role, with Fabian playing further forward. Demme was the deepest midfielder, winning three tackles and being that shielder of the back-four.
Like during their win over Simone Inzaghi’s men, they were looking to play on the counter-attack. They had to be deep in their own half in front of a Juve side that looks to dominate possession under Maurizio Sarri. They had to play deep in their own half against the biancocelesti, relying on counter-attacks to score.
While this is their way forward or not is anybody’s guess, but Barcelona may not be too comfortable with it. Napoli are slowly becoming a Gattuso team- one that likes to dominate the middle of the park.
They themselves have new manager Quique Setien at the helm. This is a manager who likes to play a high-pressing and attacking brand of football. Under him, Barcelona did win against Leganes recently. But they have had two disappointing games against Valencia and Granada- a sign of how things under Setien can be.
From his time at Real Betis, it is very clear how Setien’s teams can be. They are lovely when they are good. When they are not, they will concede goals and drop points.
Against Granada, for example, they had 18 attempts on goal. Only six were on target despite having 82.4 percent possession. They did scrape through, in the end, but it happened against Valencia too.
The Catalans had 73 percent possession, having 14 shots on goal. Only five of them went on target and Valencia found it easy to pick them apart on the counter-attack. It was typical of a Setien side.
It isn’t to say he’s a bad manager-no. He lives in a world of black and white. It is either lovely or it is awful- like it was at Betis. And Napoli, in that case, present a threat.
They will be deeper in their own half, playing on the break. With a ball-winner in midfield, they will have a structure to how they will set up on the pitch. And Barcelona will have to work hard to break them down- like Juve and Lazio had to.
There is every chance Napoli give Barca a run for their money. The Catalans could come out on top eventually, but it won’t be as easy as it seems.