Champions League: Much at stake for Barcelona, Xavi in Napoli trip for Round of 16, first leg

February 20, 2024
FC Barcelona travel for one of the most important games of their season when they face Italian club Napoli in the first leg of their Round of 16

Madrid (Spain), Feb 20 (IANS) FC Barcelona travel for one of the most important games of their season when they face Italian club Napoli in the first leg of their Round of 16 stage in the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday night.

The game is vital for the Spanish club’s economy, as well as for the credibility of coach Xavi Hernandez, who has already said he will be stepping down at the end of the season, but who could find himself leaving earlier (despite assurances to the contrary) in the case of a defeat.

Barcelona’s budget for 2023-2024 was partly based on their reaching the quarterfinals of the Champions League, with the extra 10 million the club would receive from UEFA for reaching the last eight, making a difference to an institution with debts of over 1,000 million euros.

With so much at stake, if Barca lose the first leg in Naples, it would be no big shock to see Barca president Joan Laporta and sporting director Deco decide to pull the trigger prematurely on a coach, who at times seems to be watching a different game to the rest of the world. Xavi’s comments after Barca needed a twice-taken 97th-minute penalty to beat fourth-from-bottom Celta Vigo, who according to Big Date his side should be top of La Liga, caused a few raised eyebrows – especially among people who have watched their games this season.

The fact is Barca are third in the table, eight points behind Real Madrid and still have several difficult games to play, including a visit to the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, and most of their football has not been that of a team that should be topping the table.

The good news for Barca and Xavi is that Napoli are in an even worse state, with the team currently sitting ninth in Serie A taking drastic action on Monday to sack Walter Mazzarri as coach and replace him with Francesco Calzona, who has just 48 hours to prepare for the tie.

Barca had some positive injury news on Monday with Joao Felix and Sergi Roberto passing fit, and both will be on the subs’ bench on Wednesday.

Xavi is expected to bring Inigo Martinez into central defense alongside Ronald Araujo, with Andreas Christensen moving into central midfield, alongside Pedri, Frenkie de Jong and Ilkay Gundogan, with Robert Lewandowski and 16-year-old Yamine Lamal leading the attack and Raphinha dropping to the subs’ bench. The extra man in midfield implies caution from Xavi, who knows how important it is to avoid a first-leg defeat — both for the club’s future and his own.

–IANS

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