Champions League last-16 sets two of football’s biggest basket-case clubs against each other tonight. And with neither side able to contemplate the consequences of an early exit from Europe the stakes have been cranked up far higher than for any other knockout game at this stage.
Barcelona and Napoli both won their leagues last season but the spiral has been downward ever since. And for whoever gets knocked out, the descent will only become steeper and more rapid.
This was meant to be the tie when the losing club sacked their coach but Napoli have already torn up that narrative but getting their firing and hiring in early.
As for Xavi, can you sack a man who has already quit? Well yes you can because Xavi quit because he knew he was being fired after losing 5-3 at home to Villarreal in January.
Barcelona travel to Naples for the first leg of their round of 16 tie on Wednesday
The Catalans have already announced Xavi will leave the club at the end of the season
Napoli sacked Walter Mazzarri on Tuesday after a dismal run of form
He has only been allowed to stay on until the end of the season because of who he is according to president Joan Laporta, and it’s a favour that will be undone if it starts to look like leaving him in charge until the summer will leave Barcelona without European football next season.
Laporta and his opposite number Aurelio de Laurentiis are currently engaged in a long-distance game of ‘mad president Top Trumps’. Laporta probably thinks his fit of temper in hospitality after a recent home draw with soon to be relegated Granada, tipping over a tray of spring rolls, was bonkers enough.
But De Laurentiis saw the canapé carnage and said ‘hold my beer’. He didn’t just change the club’s manager this week he hired the new man while the soon to be fired one was taking the club’s penultimate training session before tonight’s game.
If there is one thing that does set the two clubs apart it’s the attitude of the fans to so much chaos. In Barcelona they are politely embarrassed by it. In Naples they embrace it.
They are already talking about how Roberto Di Matteo took over Chelsea at the last-16 stage in 2012 and went on to win the Champions League.
Mazzarri only won six games in 17 matches so he had to go. And they see his replacement Francesco Calzona as a return to the good old days of life under Maurizio Sarri and Luciano Spalletti because he worked as an assistant under both.
He started his press conference on Tuesday by thanking the Slovakian FA for letting him take the job while also staying on as their manager. And once more, anything strange one side can do the other lot can do stranger.
Napoli won a first Serie A title in 33 years last season, playing sparkling football along the way
Victor Osimhen has failed to replicate last season’s stellar form and has been involved in a number of public spats this season
Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis has already sacked two managers this season
Francesco Calzona (right) has taken over from Mazzarri until the end of the season
When Frenkie de Jong sat down in front of the media he ranted about the journalists sat in front of him. ‘Aren’t you ashamed of writing things that just aren’t true,’ he said.
His tirade was a reference to claims he earns as much as £34million (€40m). Secrecy over players’ salaries (encouraged by the players themselves) mean it’s hard to know if he has a case.
Some journalists close to the club insists he earns £17m (€20m) and because the club has to pay his tax bill that costs them £34m – so maybe just the old ‘net’ ‘gross’ problem causing the confusion.
De Jong maybe right that the stories about him top earning are part of a campaign to make him feel uncomfortable and more likely to accept a move in the summer – Barca need to sell after LaLiga set their most recent salary limit at just £174m (€204m), that’s around £171m (€200m) below their current wage bill.
Napoli’s players have not been happy this season either. In their disastrous defence of their first Scudetto in 33 years their star players Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Victor Osihmen have often been treated like recent loan arrivals instead of the legends that delivered the trophy last season.
The former was rotated and subbed by the coach who began the campaign, Rudi Garcia, and the latter was upset by Napoli’s in-house media team when they posted a bizarre video making fun of Osimhen for missing a penalty in a 0-0 draw against Bologna – it appeared on Napoli’s official TikTok account.
It’s still not clear if it was the club’s social media manager going rogue or part of a wider conflict between the player and his president after Napoli turned down a supposedly £171m offer from Saudi Pro League club Al Hilal in the summer.
It would not be enough to buy the Nigerian striker’s left foot’ the president said at the time. The way Napoli have played this season £171m might buy you the whole team at the moment.
They are ninth, nine points from the Champions League places. Their third coach of the season is likely to put all his faith in Kvaratskhelia and Osimen tonight, with the latter apparently now back and fit after a mixture of the African Cup of Nations and injuries had kept him out of action for them since December.
Barcelona won LaLiga last season in Xavi’s second campaign in charge
Ilkay Gundogan (centre left) arrived in the summer as a free agent, as Barcelona looked to curb their spending due to their ongoing financial issues
Barcelona are better positioned in the table, lying third five points inside the top four.
They are less likely to miss out on a Champions League finish, and it’s a good job because they need it even more than Napoli – what with the small problem of a wage bill that is twice the size that the Spanish league says it’s allowed to be.
All this makes tonight’s game and the second leg in three weeks even more important.
If Barcelona make it to the quarter-finals then Xavi can stick with his current mantra that things are not really so bad (he said at the weekend that as far as Big Data is concerned his team should be top of La Liga!).
Frenkie de Jong hit out at journalists during an explosive press conference on Tuesday
Napoli would be able to concentrate on trying to claw their way up the table but it will be like a pinprick to the bubble of excitement that has greeted Mazzarri’s sacking.
If Barcelona are knocked out then Xavi will probably be joining Mazzarri on the job market with Laporta turning to B-team coach Rafa Marquez to take charge until the end of the season.
There’s a pool of relatively calm water waiting for whichever team can safely swim to the other side. They just need to get through the choppy waters of the next 180 minutes of football first.