They still talk about what happened at Anfield over a year ago. Indeed, the collapse from a 3-0 advantage in last season’s Champions League semi-final second leg was a shock to the Barcelona's core, prompting a level of soul searching that still hasn’t concluded. Barça still haven’t moved on.
Of course, before ‘Anfield’ happened, ‘Stadio Olimpico’ happened, when Barcelona allowed a 4-1 first leg lead to slip away to Roma in the 2017/18 Champions League quarterfinals. The true start of the soul searching can be traced back to that moment, even if the humiliation at Merseyside deepened the identity crisis.
A lot has changed since the Champions League defeat to Liverpool last season, and yet at the same time nothing has changed at all. There’s a new head coach in the dugout, with Quique Setien replacing Ernesto Valverde in January, but the new guy has faced many of the same criticisms as the old guy.
Josep Bartomeu is wildly unpopular as the Camp Nou club’s president, and Barcelona's lack of direction in the transfer market has undermined his standing to the point of no return. In Antoine Griezmann, they are this season burdened with an expensive misfit just as they were last season with Philippe Coutinho. Barca are also no less reliant on Lionel Messi to pull them through games.
And just as has been the case in recent seasons, Barcelona’s seasons hinges on what they do in the Champions League. It’s the competition that has come to matter most to the Catalans in recent times, with their desire to be crowned European champions again only intensified by seeing their rivals Real Madrid coronated an astonishing four times in the last six years.
Saturday’s last 16 second leg against Napoli is a potentially season-defining match for Barcelona. Win it and the Catalans will be considered among the favourites to lift the trophy. Lose it—after a 1-1 draw at home in the first leg—and it could be a moment with the potency to shatter the club.
Cracks have already appeared.
"I never doubted the squad we have and I have no doubt that we can win all that remains, but not by playing in the way we were playing,” Messi admitted in a bombshell interview given during lockdown, doubting Setien’s ability to deliver Barcelona the Champions League.
“Now, everyone has their opinion and they are all very respectable. Mine is based on the fact that I was lucky to play the Champions League every year and I know that it is not possible to win it by playing as we have been playing. Perhaps Setien misunderstood.”
Messi attempted to walk back some of his comments afterwards, but it’s clear Setien doesn’t have the full faith of the Argentine and without that it’s almost impossible for him to succeed at Barcelona. Speculation is already swirling over who could replace the former Real Betis and Las Palmas boss for the start of next season, hinting at just how little control Setien has at the Camp Nou right now. Standing on the touchline, he often has the look of a spectator and not an active participant in his own team.
Barca still have the quality to overcome Napoli this weekend, but this is a match that has all the makings of a nightmare scenario for the hosts. While Barcelona have lacked spirit in recent weeks and months, the Italian visitors to the Camp Nou have Gennaro Gattuso as their manager. The former Italian national team manager has Napoli’s blood pumping again. Spirit is perhaps their best attribute.
So much has gone rotten at Barcelona in recent times that it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where the decay started or where best to tackle it first. Bartomeu has been identified by many fans as the primary source of the club’s issues, but not even a new president will automatically restore Barca to the team and organisation they once were.
A fundamental rethink is required at the Camp Nou. The individual quality Barcelona possess in the likes of Messi, Luis Suarez, Griezmann, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique and Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, among others, means they cannot be discounted as Champions League contenders, even at their lowest ebb. But right now, even European glory won’t mask the true state of the storied Catalan club.
How to Watch Barcelona vs Napoli
Barcelona vs Napoli will be airing on the tv channel CBSSN this coming Saturday. You can watch the Champions League live on fuboTV.
Date: Saturday, Aug. 8
Time: 3 p.m. ET
Live Stream: You can live stream Barcelona-Napoli on fuboTV
TV Channel: CBSSN