While Chelsea and Bayern go toe-to-toe at Stamford Bridge this evening, arguably the Champions League tie of the night will be taking place on the picturesque Amalfi coast of Italy. Barcelona, who would like to be considered a contender for Europe’s top side, haven’t won the continent’s top title in five seasons. They’ve seen hated rivals Real Madrid lift it three times in the interim period, and need to deliver a better performance this season, starting with tonight’s visit to Napoli in the first leg of the last 16.
The hosts, for their part, are looking to progress beyond the round of 16 for the first time. They qualified for this stage by finishing just behind Liverpool in the groups, and then fired Carlo Ancelotti. His replacement, Gennaro Gattuso, has overseen six wins in the last seven games across all competitions and has masterminded victories over Juventus and Inter during that time. Now he brings his buzzing, slightly terrifying energy to the Champions League against a Barca side that has also recently fired and hired in the manager’s office.
A match of contrasting styles
Gattuso was a highly skilful footballer – you don’t spend as long as he did forming part of the midfield for Milan and Italy if you’re not capable of the cute stuff – but let’s be honest, that’s not what people remember him for. The “good cop, bad cop” energy of his partnership with Andrea Pirlo for club and country was something to behold, and Gattuso was definitely the bad cop. Since he hung up his boots, the Calabrian native has brought that same energy to the dugout. A side managed by Gattuso is one infused with his grizzly, spiky spirit.
There could scarcely be a greater contrast with that style than the side Napoli will face today. Barcelona are so committed to controlling the ball that it has become a cliche, and we can expect them to have upwards of 60% possession here. This means we can also expect Napoli to be drawn into more than the usual number of fouls. At 888, you can find a price of 6/5 on the hosts committing over 13.5 fouls, and that’s a decent price considering the above details.
A tighter match than expected
Take things back a couple of years and this match would have been ideal for fans of stylish football – Napoli under Mauricio Sarri were something of an Italian Barcelona, and their three-man attack of Mertens, Insigne and Callejon nearly fired them to a Serie A title. Since Sarri’s departure, the same players have remained, but Napoli’s approach has evolved under two different managers. Goals are harder to come by for the Neapolitan side now, but they also have a harder edge defensively.
The latter is not great news for Barca this evening, as they come into the match without Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele, both long-term injured. The Catalan side has recently parted with €18million to secure the services of Martin Braithwaite as an emergency replacement – but he is unavailable here. While the visitors can still call on the extravagant talents of Antoine Griezmann and Leo Messi, they’re a blunter instrument than usual and Grosvenor’s 10/11 on there being fewer than 2.5 goals in total seems like a fair price.
Happy hunting for the hosts?
Under new boss Quique Setien, Barcelona have shown some improvement on the performances they were managing in the first half of the season, and the weekend saw Blaugrana finally start to show the scoring form that has long been expected of them, shelling five goals past Eibar for no reply. The lead in La Liga has been regained, and there are reasons for the Spanish champions to feel confident of a decent end to the season. The question is, does that end begin this evening?
We’re leaning towards “no”. Without knowing exactly what Setien’s starting XI will look like (will he pick thrilling youngster Ansu Fati, or plump for the more defensive Arturo Vidal?), it’s hard to say exactly how dangerous Barcelona can be. In addition, there is their opposition to consider. Napoli, by recent results and sheer squad quality, merit being taken seriously and – even if you suspect that the Iberian side will win the tie – it’s reasonable to expect Napoli to win this evening. At 9/4 with Unibet, they’re an interesting punt at the very least.
Bets of the Day
Napoli win (Unibet, 9/4); Fewer than 2.5 goals (Grosvenor, 10/11); Napoli make more than 13.5 fouls (888, 6/5)