Musing about his side’s Europa League blockbuster against Napoli, Barcelona head coach Xavi attempted to sum up the size of the tie. ‘This fixture could have been played in the Champions [League],’ he proffered.
In truth, only one of these clubs are presenting anything like elite form this season. And it isn’t Barcelona.
Napoli are in the midst of one of the tighest, most captivating Serie A title races in recent history, involved in a three-way tussle with both Milan outfits.
Napoli are in the midst of a Serie A title race as they turn their attentions to the Europa League
They squandered a huge chance on Saturday to hit the front, drawing 1-1 at home with Inter, and allowing Milan to move top in the process following their win at home to Sampdoria.
There are undoubedtly more twists and turns to come though, and sitting just two points off top – with a home clash with Milan coming up at the begining of March – Luciano Spalletti’s side are in the thick of it.
At the heart of their push for a first title since 1990 is a strong defence, something you would not have associated the club with over the past decade.
While they have never been a side easy to beat, the focus has often been up front, a desire to defend by attacking, with the football played under Maurizio Sarri often heralded for its style, even if it delivered no silverware.
Luciano Spalletti has produced a side difficult to break down and who don’t concede much
Under Spalletti this season, that has changed. Just 17 goals have been conceded in the league this season after 25 games. The next best record belongs to Inter, who have let in 20.
A strong start to the season saw them win their first eight league matches on the bounce, conceding just three times in the process. They didn’t suffer their first defeat in Serie A this season until November – a 2-1 defeat by Inter at San Siro.
At the heart of that defence has been perennial Premier League target Kalidou Koulibaly and Kosovan stopper Amir Rrahmani. Former Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina has kept 11 cleansheets in the league to date.
There was a fear the loss of Koulibaly to the Africa Cup of Nations could have derailed their title bid, with ex-Fulham midfielder Andre Zambo Anguissa also missing for the first few weeks of the year.
Victor Osimhen has emerged as a key player up front for Spalletti’s side in Serie A this season
As it is, they have stayed on track, recovering from a poor end to 2021 to maintain pace. They are still unbeaten this year, bar the extra-time defeat by Fiorentina in the Coppa Italia.
At the other end of the pitch, Victor Osimhen is finally beginning to make waves in Italy.
Barcelona and Xavi have been crying out for a focal point for their attack, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang parachuted in to fill a hole. A first-hand glance at Osimhen could provide a glimpse of what is really required at the Nou Camp.
Fabian Ruiz has been lauded by his Spain team-mate Pedri for his performances for Napoli
That is not to say the Nigerian has always been the model forward for Napoli. It was something of a huge gamble when they smashed their own transfer record to secure his services for €70m from Lille in 2020.
A spate of injuries and a spell out through Covid – caught while attending a birthday party back in Nigeria – made for a hugely frustrating opening campaign. His return of 10 goals in 30 appearances is not what owner Aurelio De Laurentiis had forked out for.
This term, he has already equalled that return, in 12 fewer appearances. he’s enjoyed pulling his boots on in Europe this season, helping himself to four goals in three appearances.
Xavi suggested this could be a Champions League game given the standing of the two clubs
He is far from the only threat up top either, with Fabian Ruiz pulling the strings behind and turning heads back home in Spain.
‘They have a great midfield, I know Fabian [Ruiz], with whom I get along very well from the national team,’ said Barcelona’s Pedri ahead of Thursday’s clash when asked avbout his Spain team-mate.
‘They have a great team. We know how they play and it is especially worrying how they go on the counterattack.
‘He’s a player with a very good shot, I hope he doesn’t have his day tomorrow.’
While both Ruiz and Osimhen are enjoying strong seasons, both still have a way to go to secure iconic status at Napoli.
The club’s most famous player, Diego Maradona, also played for Barcelona, but coach Spalletti is in no doubt who the Argentine would be rooting for this evening.
‘The two squads are so well equipped that the absence of one player and the presence of another does not make a difference,’ he said in his press conference – speaking on the absence of Hirving Lozano and winger Matteo Politano.
Diego Maradona is a club legend at Napoli with the stadium now named after the Argentinean
‘There would be one that could make a difference, but he will watch this game from heaven.
‘I am talking about Maradona, who will initially try to be “good”, but then I am convinced he will take a position and cheer for Napoli.’
With the Partenopei still fighting on two fronts, perhaps it’s time for another icon to emerge.