Barcelona are through, but that was virtually all you could say about them. Quique Setien’s side – although only just, if reports from Catalonia are to be believed – progressed to the quarter-finals of the Champions League thanks largely to the individual luminosity of Lionel Messi and the profligacy of their opponents. And yet in doing so they looked leaden and reactive, disjointed and disenchanted, producing a performance that will embolden rather than overawe their remaining rivals in the competition.
In a way, this was the modern Barcelona in microcosm: more than good enough for the average mid-table pretender, and yet ponderous and largely reactive in the face of a drilled attacking pattern and an opponent determined to keep the ball from them. It is why they were pipped to the La Liga title by Real Madrid and why, barring a dramatic uptick in form, are still likely to endure their first trophyless season since 2008.
Perhaps this feels a harsh indictment of a team who had virtually managed to make the tie safe by half-time. And yet, even Messi’s gilding can no longer conceal the flaws of a team that for all its bells and whistles, its £767m in transfer fees since the 2013-14 season, rarely feels like more than its constituent parts. It may be a while before we see Gennaro Gattuso’s Napoli in this competition again. But there was only one team with a discernible identity here, and it wasn’t the team with the highest wage bill in world football.
Napoli actually started the better. It wasn’t just Dries Mertens slamming the ball against the post within the first 90 seconds: they were also zipping the ball around with more confidence, looking sharper, getting to the second balls quicker. Unfortunately, by the time the game was a quarter through, they were also 2-0 down.
Barcelona’s 10th-minute lead came courtesy of a corner from the left, Clément Lenglet heading the ball past David Ospina having first pushed Diego Demme into Kalidou Koulibaly like a snooker cannon. Thirteen minutes later, with Napoli committing numbers forward, Barcelona plundered a second: Messi tumbling to the turf under the twin challenges of Lorenzo Insigne and Mário Rui, and yet somehow still scrambling to his feet.
With the ball, of course: this is Messi, after all, and as he regained his balance the ball somehow clung to him like a faithful dog. With his footing giving way again, he somehow managed to hold himself upright for just long enough to curl the ball past Ospina and into virtually the only square of goal that he was unable to reach.
It could have been still worse for Napoli. A second goal for Messi on the half-hour was chalked off after the VAR found he had used his hand to control the ball after bringing down Frenkie de Jong’s delicious cross and lifting the ball delicately over Ospina. But on the stroke of half-time, Barcelona won a penalty: Koulibaly capping a horrible half by clipping the back of Messi’s calf and bringing him down. Luiz Suárez slammed the ball home to put the tie virtually out of Napoli’s reach.
And yet, in the very last twitches of the first half, Napoli pulled a goal back: Ivan Rakitic bringing down Mertens in the area and Insigne putting the penalty away after yet another interminable VAR delay. If this was a reminder to Barcelona of their own essential fallibility, then it was one that went unheeded: as the second half began they looked inert, sluggish, even a touch complacent. Mertens had a shot blocked. Countless crosses were desperately headed or punched away.
Most damningly of all, Barcelona’s midfield – albeit, one missing the normal bite and punch of Arturo Vidal and Sergio Busquets – frequently let Napoli simply play the ball in front of them, around them, behind them, displaying a passivity that felt not just ill-advised but somehow apostate: a distortion of everything that Barcelona like to think they hold dear.
Remarkably, Setien waited until the 84th minute before using the first of his 12 available substitutes, withdrawing the ineffective Antoine Griezmann. By which time Napoli had already threatened to narrow the deficit further: Hirving Lozano flicking the ball just over the bar with his first touch of the game, and Arkadiusz Milik heading home with 10 minutes left, only to be flagged a fraction offside.
Full time was greeted with the usual muted celebrations, the usual handshakes and fist-bumps. A rumbling discontent has long infused this club, one that even cherished victories in the continent’s flagship knockout competition can never quite dispel. And yet, for all their faults, into the last eight stride Barcelona: laboured, sluggish and a team dangerously reliant on one man’s pocketful of miracles.