The top clubs in Europe return to Champions League action in only a week and we’ll be previewing them all here! The round of 16 continues into late February.
Up next in our series of previews is Spanish club FC Barcelona from Group F traveling to Stadio San Paolo in Naples, Italy to face the Group E runner up, Napoli. FC Barcelona comes into this match leading La Liga on the back of a four-goal performance by their superstar while Napoli enters as the sixth-placed club in the Serie A. Barcelona have some big-name players that will be missing due to injury, so will Napoli be able to capitalize on their absence?
Here’s a look at the clubs:
Barca has only been 2nd in the table for a total of four matchdays, otherwise, they have been top of the table. This is hardly unexpected given that they are averaging 3.4 goals scored per game at home and they are conceding less than one goal per game. The storyline only changes slightly in away games because although they continue to win matches, they drop to a more “pedestrian” 1.5 goals scored per game and 0.6 conceded. Overall, Barcelona has a +33 goal differential and has only lost four matches. They are also likely to have even higher expectations on them for the Champions League after their untimely elimination from the Copa del Rey to Athletic Bilbao (who are eleventh in La Liga).
Barcelona won Group F remaining undefeated with four wins and two draws (away to Borussia Dortmund and at home to Slavia Prague). In games played at home, Barcelona’s scoring has been tempered to 1.6 goals scored per match while maintaining very near the same goal concessions allowed at home in La Liga (0.66 compared to 0.6). They’ve scored even fewer goals away from home, 1.33, but maintain the same 0.66 concessions per game. Despite being Group F winners, there’s less to separate them from Napoli than you would imagine. Napoli handed Liverpool their only loss, and only failed to win their group by having three draws. I don’t think that either group really had an “easier” route than the other, but I am a little surprised by the low scoring numbers and expect Barcelona to start scoring more.
Players to Watch:
Lionel Messi: Lionel Messi is one of the greatest players to play the game. If you frequent these, you’ll know that I generally try to avoid the obvious plays. For Barcelona, Messi is just too instrumental to avoid. Messi leads La Liga in goals, assists and Man of the Match awards. He’s scored
fourteen eighteen league goals (he added four more since I started this write up…) and also has twelve assists to add to his tally. To illustrate his value to the team, Messi has twelve Man of the Match awards in only 20 appearances. The next closest is our third player to watch, with three. His production appears to have dropped in the champions league, but Barcelona as a whole have just scored fewer goals. Messi has contributed two goals, three assists, and has been rewarded with three Man of the Match awards.
Antoine Griezmann: Griezmann hasn’t been relied on to be the point man for everything like he was at Atletico Madrid, so his scoring and assist numbers are down slightly. However, he’s still playing a major role for this side. He has scored eight goals and four assists across his 24 appearances in La Liga, making him their third-leading scorer behind the other two players to watch. His four assists makes him also the third-leading assist generator on the team. He hasn’t played particularly well in the Champions League so far this season, but based on his scoring record across La Liga, he’s likely to have a bumper game anytime now. He’s already contributed one goal in the Champions League, and he should get a bunch more opportunities with the amount of emphasis that will be placed on Messi (especially coming off a four-goal game).
Frankie de Jong: de Jong moved from a successful season at Ajax to Barcelona for a cool ~$80M. So far, he hasn’t lived up to his transfer fee, but with Ousmane Dembele and Luis Suarez both out with injury, I think a change in formation may occur, with de Jong entering in his stead. de Jong was not signed to score goals, and I don’t expect him to do so in this scenario, but he will need to add some creativity to the midfield. He will also have to play well defensively in case Napoli tries to turn on a counter and catch Barcelona sleeping. I do think that de Jong may manage to add an assist to his tally, likely to Griezmann who will have to step up dramatically to replace the production left void by Suarez’s exit.
Napoli has experienced a substantial decline in the form that won them a place in the Champions League last season. This year, they have struggled in the Serie A where they currently reside in sixth-place. Napoli have struggled mightily to maintain their goalscoring form from last season, where they had scored 74 compared to the 39 goals scored this year. To further complicate matters, they have already conceded more goals than they allowed in the entirety of last-season. Last season’s +38 goal difference looks like a near-mythical number given the current +4 goal difference.
In the Champions League, despite their performance in the domestic league, they have managed a reasonable performance. So far their largest shortcoming has been an overwhelming number of draws. However, despite having three draws in the group stage, they secured the Runner up position in Group E.Napoli has been somewhat better at home in the Champions League with 2 wins, and a draw. They are averaging 2.33 goals scored per game and 0.33 goals. These statistics seemingly set up a good scenario for Napoli – especially accounting for the dramatic decrease in goalscoring form. Napoli will want to get out to a lead here, if possible, because they are averaging 1.33 goals scored and 1 conceded at away games.
Players to Watch:
Dries Mertens: Napoli does a really good job of scoring by committee, which means that although they don’t have someone with Messi-esque numbers, they also have fourteen different Serie A scorers. Mertens is second on the team with six goals in the domestic league tying for third-place on the team with three assists in the Serie A. Where Mertens has really done his damage has been in the Champions League where he’s scored a team-high five goals, including the goal that would have them take the lead over eventual group-winners, Liverpool. Mertins just seems to live for the bigger games, and this seems like a prime opportunity where we could see him strike again.
Arkadiusz Milik: Milik hasn’t made as many appearances as some of the other members of the team with 15 total appearances. Despite recording about 700 minutes less than the regular starters, he’s managed to produce an enormous amount for the club. In the Serie A, he’s contributed nine goals (roughly one-quarter of the teams total). In reward for his efforts and contributions, he’s received four Man of the Match awards (roughly one-quarter again of the teams total). Although his playtime has been among the least of the regular players accruing only two starts (a third appearance off the bench) for 170 minutes. Despite the substantial decrease in time, he’s still managed to contribute three goals, which combined with Mertens accounts for almost all of their scoring. With his production what it is, I struggle with the logic of leaving him on the bench in this next match, especially given the stage and the need to win to advance (draws will no longer allow them to continue).
Jose Callejon: During 23 total appearances in the Serie A, Callejon is the team-leader in assists. He’s provided six assists and added a pair of goals for the team’s cause. For whatever reason, he’s been unable to replicate this form in the Champions League. In fact, he’s provided only one assist so far in his five games in the Champions League. However, given his role in the Serie A with assists, I have to think it’s only a matter of time until he adds more to his tally. This would be a very, very good time for Callejon to find either his goal-scoring or assisting form.
What to Expect
This game sets up to be an interesting match up. The betting community started out thinking this would be a virtual give-me for Barcelona. Since then, however, there has been a substantial movement towards Napoli reflecting some uncertainty. Barcelona opened as -110 favorites over +260 Napoli, but the spread has closed to Barcelona +115 and Napoli at +225. This is likely the effect of Luis Suarez being out with season-ending knee surgery and Ousman Dembele also being out. I think this is a place where Barcelona needs to be really careful because Napoli really has nothing to lose at this point. Napoli also boasts an amazing home goal conceding record, so I think you have to respect them here. I think Napoli definitely has a very good opportunity to spring an upset.
Last Updated: February 24, 2020