The Spanish giants take on the Italian side at the Nou Camp on Saturday with all to play for in the UCL round of 16.
Earlier this year in March when the coronavirus pandemic spread across Europe, it brought upon a nightmare for all citizens especially in Italy, Spain, France, England and Germany. The Italians were the worst-hit country, then followed by Spain and France. By the outcome of the way the virus had spread, footballing associations called off their top leagues namely in France and Netherlands. While in England, Spain, Italy and Germany the associations postponed their leagues indefinitely waiting for the pandemic to end and the situation to get under control. Amidst this, the biggest and most favoured trophy in Europe – the UCL was very likely to be called off which would be the first time since it was held in 1956.
But as we have witnessed, time heals everything and European football across countries resumed slowly but steadily in mid-May, first in Germany followed by Italy, Spain and England by taking the necessary precautions and safety guidelines under strict consideration. We would have never expected the UCL to resume but on 17 June, UEFA announced its resumption on 07 August and for the first time in the tournament’s history a new format was rolled out. Held at a neutral venue in Portugal, it would be a knockout tournament with a one-leg fixture for the quarters and semi-finals. And on 23 August, at the Estádio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica, Lisbon, Portugal will be the place where we will witness this year’s European winner being crowned.
As of now, all the major leagues in Europe have ended and the stage is set for European football to get underway. Atlanta, Leipzig, Paris Saint Germain, and Atletico Madrid have booked their spots in the quarter-final stage while Juventus, Olympique Lyon, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Napoli, FC Barcelona, Manchester City, and Real Madrid will battle it out for the balance four spots.
The final UCL fixtures for the 2020 season
THE FINAL RACE
This year’s Spanish champions Real Madrid will be visiting Manchester City and will look to overturn their 2-1 loss to the Citizens back home in Madrid to stand a chance to claim a fourth UCL title in 5 years.
French club Lyon has a slender 1-0 advantage over Italian champions Juventus, but Cristiano Ronaldo will have plans to cut short the visitors celebrations as he tends to perform at crucial games when his clubs need him the most.
German powerhouse Bayern Munich has a comfortable 3-0 lead over Frank Lampard’s Chelsea and will look to seal their place in the last 8 of the competition. Chelsea travels to Germany to face Bayern and look to overcome an impossible 3-0 defeat earlier at home in London. Bayern Munich has been the most attacking team in this year’s UCL scoring 27 goals and have had the most goal attempts.
And the last 2 teams left, the Italian side of Napoli visit Camp Nou to face a Barcelona side who are not having a great season so far. Before the pandemic break, Barcelona was leading La Liga but eventually lost the league to rivals Real Madrid. With tensions flaring among the players and club management and major criticism for head coach Quique Setien for his tactics, the game vs Napoli could be a decider for his future. Napoli, on the other hand, has also had a disappointing end to their Serie A campaign finishing seventh but managed to secure a spot for football in European next season by beating Juventus in the Copa Italia.
QUIQUE SETIEN’S TACTICS VS NAPOLI
Setien, who replaced Ernesto Valverde earlier in January has been under immense pressure as he has been criticized for his tactics and also rumours of a bust-up with several key first-team players. His future at the club may be at stake in the game against Napoli, and if Barcelona is knocked out there is a good chance he could be sacked.
Following Barcelona’s poor domestic season as they finished second in La Liga to champions Real Madrid and were knocked out by Athletic Club in the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey, they only have the UCL left to salvage some pride and finish the season on a high. Setien has his focus on the game vs Napoli ever since La Liga completed and has been trying out variations in training with the squad. He has been known for his regular 4-3-3 or 4-3-1-2 formation ever since taking over in January, but he may return to a 3-5-2 formation vs Napoli. Another worry for Barcelona is they will be without key midfielders, Sergio Busquets and Arturo Vidal as they are suspended.
Nelson Semedo who is backed up by Setien’s confidence in him looks likely to start at the back three, with Gerard Pique and Clement Lengelet accompanying him. Back from injury, Dutch sensation Frenkie de Jong could start in midfield along with Ivan Rakitic and La Masia graduate Riqui Puig. Sergio Roberto and Jordi Alba could accompany them as wing-backs. Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi would finish the line up as the front two. Questions if Antoine Griezmann who has also recently recovered from injury will be included in his plan if he chooses to use the trident alongside Messi and Suarez. Barcelona will have a bench filled with youngsters looking for a chance to get a debut in the UCL if the team manages to move into a comfortable position during the tie.
The Italian side known for its quick counter-attacks could cause a menace for the ever criticised Barcelona defence, but maybe Setien can get his tactics right as he did in the final game of La Liga in which the club finished the season with a convincing 5-0 performance and got back glimpses of the Barcelona we are used to watching.
UCL STATS – HOME vs AWAY
Napoli will head to Camp Nou on Saturday yet to taste defeat on their travels in the UCL this season. Gattuso’s side drew at Liverpool and Genk in the group stages and won at Red Bull Salzburg. The Serie A side can draw comfort from their record as they take on a Barcelona side who have not lost at the Camp Nou in European competition since 2013. The Catalans have gone 35 matches without defeat on their turf since going down to Bayern Munich.
After all, the UCL has become an obsession for the club ever since they last won it in 2015. While previous coach Valverde was sacked due to the inability to steer the team to European glory even though winning back to back La Liga titles. Setien will have to play his best tactics and we can only instil confidence in the man, rather than doubt his capabilities before such a crucial game. The Italians will be a tough hurdle that he will have to cross, but we can give Barcelona the benefit as they have qualified for each of the past 12 quarterfinals in the past years.
THE BATTLE GETS TOUGHER, THE ROAD TO THE FINALS
Quarter-final – Friday 14 August
Well, it doesn’t get over with Napoli. If Barcelona can see through the game vs Napoli, they will have to be at their A-game for the next three upcoming fixtures. With this year’s revised format, each game will be a single leg decider and in the quarter-finals, Barcelona could face the in-form Germans, Bayern Munich. With Chelsea having injury worries over their FA Cup defeat last week, Bayern could land up comfortable winners at the Allianz arena and they are already the tournament favourites this year. Lewandowski has scored 51 goals for Bayern this season and he will be needing some stopping if they land up facing Barcelona in the quarter-finals. Hansi Flick’s side has gone from strength to strength, romping to the German double amid a 17-match winning run. Ex Barcelona player, Thiago could cause some problem in the midfield assisted with the strike force of Muller, Gnabry and Coman. This will certainly be an entertaining game and Messi and co. will have to go all guns blazing against the Germans. Remember, Bayern is the most attacking team in this year’s UCL topping the stats.
Semi-final – Wednesday 19 August
Even though it seems only a couple of weeks away, it is a long way to go to get here. 2 more decisive games before we face the likes of Spanish rivals Real Madrid, Pep’s Manchester City, Cristiano’s Juventus or Olympique Lyon. Holding the advantage over Madrid, City will look to take advantage of their first leg 2-1 lead over Los Blancos and Pep will want his team to progress to the next stage and get closer to European glory. On the other hand, recently being crowned Spanish champions, Zidane’s men will want to continue their fine form in the tournament. Juventus and Lyon will battle it out and the winner will have to face the strength of City or Madrid and their winner could face Barcelona if the Blaugrana manage to beat the Bavarians. We could have another El Clasico on the cards if Real Madrid beat Manchester City this weekend. But they still must go through against either Lyon or Juventus before we can have another El Clasico semi-final. A treat for all footballing fans across the globe.
Finals – Sunday 23 August
A date that Barcelona fans can be only hopeful of at this moment for their club to be playing the finals of this year UCL final in the Estádio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica, Lisbon. Can the 5-year drought of not winning this cup be eluded this year? Can the ghosts of Roma and Liverpool be put to rest finally? And will Setien get his tactics right to steer the team to European glory?
With defending champions, Liverpool being knocked out of the competition by Atletico Madrid, we will have our eyes set to find out who will be this years UCL winner.
As our captain, Lionel Messi challenged the squad by saying in his recent interview, “If we want to win the Champions League, we’ll have to improve massively otherwise we can lose against Napoli.”
Let’s all hope each member of the squad gets their top game on the pitch and defend the crest on their hearts with the same passion for every game ahead. And yes, we always have the differentiator, a player who is every team’s worst nightmare and unstoppable on his day. La Pulga – Lionel Messi.
VISCA BARCA! FORCA BARCA!