With the tie delicately poised following a 1-1 first-leg draw at Camp Nou, Napoli welcome Barcelona to the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona for the second leg of their Europa League playoff battle on Thursday evening.
Luciano Spalletti’s side were on course for a famous Catalan win after Piotr Zielinski’s opener before Ferran Torres responded from the spot in the first leg.
Taking part in their first match in a tournament which was previously alien to them, Barcelona’s inaugural Europa League tie was heading in the wrong direction after Zielinski was allowed to stroll into space and smash home the opener at the second attempt following Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s initial save.
However, Barca’s appeals for a penalty were rewarded after Adama Traore’s ball struck the hand of Juan Jesus, and Ferran Torres converted the spot kick to level proceedings, but the former Manchester City man could not capitalise on two late opportunities to settle the contest in his side’s favour.
In previous Europa League tournaments, Napoli would boast the upper hand in this tie, but the abolition of the away goals rule means that it is all to play for on the Naples turf, and Spalletti’s men enter the contest having just played out their third 1-1 draw in succession – this time against Cagliari in Serie A.
Crunch clashes with Lazio and AC Milan follow the second leg for this injury-hit Napoli outfit, who are still in with a real shot at Calcio glory and are aiming to avoid being dumped out of the Europa League at this stage for the fourth time in seven seasons.
A six-game unbeaten run across all competitions does stand the hosts in good stead ahead of Thursday’s showdown, but a tally of just two wins from their last six on home soil is not a recipe for success against this new-look Barcelona outfit.
Spearheading this new-look Barcelona attack, Aubameyang appears to be banishing the demons of his painful Arsenal exit, and the former Borussia Dortmund man could yet play a key role in ensuring that the ongoing Ousmane Dembele saga has a positive ending.
That 4-1 success in La Liga marked Barca’s fifth game on the bounce without defeat, and they have scored in every one of their matches since the turn of the year, but no clean sheets in four may concern Xavi somewhat.
Barcelona were forced to settle for a 1-1 draw on Napoli’s turf during the 2019-20 Champions League last-16 before winning 3-1 at home, and another entertaining affair could be in store here, with both sides scoring in all three competitive meetings between the European powerhouses.
Napoli Europa League form:
Napoli form (all competitions):
Barcelona Europa League form:
Barcelona form (all competitions):
We say: Napoli 1-2 Barcelona (Barcelona win 3-2 on aggregate)
Even with their ongoing injury issues in the final third, Napoli can trouble and breach this shaky Barcelona backline on their own turf, but any hopes of advancing to the last-16 may be a little far-fetched.
Another European departure would be nothing short of disastrous for Barcelona, but Xavi’s bountiful options in attack should help their side get the job done in the second leg.