UCL Preview: Barcelona vs Napoli

Typically, progressing to the knockout stage of the Champions League is a sign that your club is headed in the right direction and things are fine. For both Napoli and Barcelona, it only delayed the inevitable. Both Carlo Ancelotti and Ernesto Valverde were sacked as a result of poor performance, disappointing standing in the league, bad football, any of the above, really. The usual reasons. Yet neither new manager really looks to be the person to take over for the long term. This is a match of two interims.

There were questions raised from the start of Ernesto Valverde’s spell at Barcelona. Having played the Cruyffian styled 4–3–3 since what seemed like forever, Valverde transformed Barcelona into a team deploying a more conventional if dynamic 4–4–2, moving Lionel Messi more centrally to play off of Luis Suárez. The difference was less of a focus on speed and flair from wingers such as the departed Neymar and a younger Messi but more on moving the ball forward with precision while still offering the danger of overlapping fullbacks on attacks. Andrés Iniesta, arguably one of the best number 8s in footballing history, was transformed into a ball-playing wide midfielder, regularly tucking inside to allow the relentless Jordi Alba to power to the by-line.

In his first season, Valverde’s Barcelona was knocked out in the Quarter Finals to plucky underdogs AS Roma. In his second year, he was knocked out in the Quarter Finals to (due to injuries) underdogs Liverpool — in both matches, he went into the second leg with a three goal advantage. The question to be asked here is if Barcelona were good enough to win by three goals in the first leg, is their collapse in the second due to the manager or the players? Considering the fees paid by Barcelona to replace certain players such as Andrés Iniesta and Neymar, one would hope that it is the manager.

In the three seasons since he left, Neymar is yet to be adequately replaced by Barcelona, no matter how many attempts. Ousmane Dembélé, bought in days after Neymar’s departure, has suffered injuries and a form best described as erratic. Philippe Coutinho was initially recruited to take over from Iniesta before being trialled as a winger in lieu of Dembélé’s injuries. Antoine Griezmann’s arrival — whether it was as a replacement for Neymar or the ageing Suárez — took spending to roughly €345 million. And the progress is difficult to see.

Under Valverde Barcelona won the Spanish league twice, the Copa Del Rey and the Spanish Supercup. But these are comparatively small patatas considering the very recent European dominance that squad had. This team went from winning the continental treble twice in six years to being knocked out in the quarter finals twice in two. The — and it is not totally unfair to say it — embarrassing manner in which these knockouts occurred put Valverde’s career on the ropes with many fans unable to accept him after the Roma defeat. Now with Quique Setién in charge… it is genuinely anyone’s guess as to what happens next.

For all of his discussions of philosophy and an almost sycophantic idolisation of Johann Cruyff, Setién does have the capability to get his teams playing attractive football. His teams at Real Betis and Las Palmas played with energy and motivation but often in total neglect of defensive duties. He may talk like a Barcelona coach but he is far from what they need.

Not to dwell on the lack of defensive steadiness displayed against Roma and Liverpool, the black cloud over this team is that they are maybe three years away from not having the luxury of Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets or Gerard Piqué; in fact if the previous two seasons are anything to go on, Busquets and Piqué may be approaching the door at a faster rate. Barcelona need to begin planning for a team that doesn’t have these cheat-codes anymore, an almost total overhaul to at least attempt to emulate the successes of years gone by. After his effusive comments regarding the club upon his arrival, there is still little to suggest that Setién will be there long enough to see those changes come to fruition.

When Setién faces Napoli, he will be leading a team out to the Champions League anthem for the first time in his career. To imagine a team like Barcelona being managed by someone without European experience is simply incomprehensible. But as long as they play the Barca style that Setién adores so much, he’ll have his place at the table. All he has to do is ensure clean sheets. The goals will take care of themselves… And if they don’t, one can never rule out another 9 figure spend on a player who will be used out of position.

The team that Setién faces in his debut are in a similar situation.

Carlo Ancelotti’s career as a manager is storied but somewhat tumultuous. His name is certainly engraved in the annals of footballing history but considering he was managing Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modrić, Gareth Bale and Sergio Ramos as recently as five years ago, the fact that he now finds himself at Everton is a surprise.

After losing his job with Real Madrid in 2015, Ancelotti found himself as the successor to Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich. Incidentally, this appointment came only a few weeks after he said that most managers could win the league with Bayern ‘with their hands in their pockets’. Ancelotti put that theory to the test during his time in charge; Bayern legend Arjen Robben reportedly said that the training sessions at his son’s club were more strenuous than what he was asked to do under the former AC Milan coach. While there is no doubt that Luka Robben will go on to become one of the best footballers in the world, he was only 6 at the time. The lax training became very apparent in matches. Bayerndusel was on the menu all too frequently in Ancelotti’s matches and, while they won the league, he was sacked as early as September of his second season.

This approach appeared to follow him to his next club, Napoli. What started off as a promising tenure soon turned to players looking ambivalent and, at times, clueless. Upon arriving at Napoli, Ancelotti had an identical situation as he did in Bavaria. He was joining a team that was structured, energetic and fiercely competitive, managed by someone who had a clear philosophy in how they wanted their team to look. To suggest that this is somewhat at odds with Ancelotti’s apparent hands off approach is not totally inaccurate.

Despite remaining undefeated in the Group Stage, Ancelotti was sacked just hours after beating Genk 4–0 to ensure qualification to the Round of 16. He was replaced by his former player Gennaro Gattuso.

Gattuso’s spell at AC Milan was mixed but one that showed signs of promise at times. Performances weren’t excellent, results weren’t excellent. To butcher a quote from the man himself, things were “sometimes maybe good, sometimes maybe markedly less than good”. But what he had going for him is that there is not one single player in the world that would dare say no to what Gennaro Gattuso tells them to do.

And this is why he is now the manager of Napoli.

Ancelotti’s departure came as a result of both poor results and having lost the locker room; football’s greatest chicken/egg situation. A group of individuals not interested, failing to do what the manager wanted, possibly refusing to do what the manager wanted. Enter Rino.

Gattuso has struggled with results in Naples, at one point seeing his team stand at 11th in Serie A. By virtue of competing in maybe the most competitive campaign in a number of years, slip-ups are now more costly than ever. But it appears that things are on the up. He has managed to record victories against Juventus, Inter Milan and Lazio and is currently in 6th place, offering them a chance to qualify for the Europa League next season. If there is anything that these performances show it is that Gattuso has been able to bring a resilience to the team and an energy to go forward — he has only failed to score in one game since taking charge in December while still being able to hang on to leads in spite of oncoming attacks.

If the basic principle of a manager is to make a team greater than the sum of its parts, Gattuso has a relatively easy job as the talent on offer in Naples is still fantastic. In regards to attacking options, he has a litany of players who have at one point or another been difference makers and who all still have that capability. Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens and Arkadiusz Milik lead the charge of Napoli’s top scorers so, if gifted midfielders Fabian Ruiz, Piotr Zielinski or the talented Eljif Elmas can get the ball to these players, there should be no shortage of goals. In his first 13 fixtures, his Napoli outfit have averaged 1.4 goals per game.

Gattuso has appeared to model his managerial style on that of Diego Simeone. Tough tackling, tactically simplistic but still relentless and energetic. Gattuso could be on the verge of an upset victory against a team that many would still consider one of the favourites. The only problem that he may encounter is his star centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly will be missing through injury. Thankfully for him, Kostas Manolas knows a thing or two about playing against Barcelona.

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