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Can Barcelona loot and pillage Napoli?

Tuesday 25th February 2020
Whether Messi scores or not, recent history saddles Barcelona with failed invasions.
Whether Messi scores or not, recent history saddles Barcelona with failed invasions.

In any list of absolute football fortresses in Europe, San Mames, Mestalla and San Paolo must rank near the top. While some might first consider grounds like Anfield, Old Trafford, the Allianz Arena, Santiago Bernabeu, Nou Camp and, more recently, Parc des Princes and Etihad, a fortress isn’t defined by the superior forces it houses. Rather, it’s about the difficulty superior forces face when invading.

The battle of Thermopylae lives on in legend because a Greek force of roughly 2,000 led by Leonidas and his 300 Spartans held off Xerxes’ invading Persians numbering more than 100,000 for eight days in 480 BC. Similarly, a combined force of just over 100 illegal American immigrants and native Texians held the Alamo mission against General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s 1500 troops for 13 days in 1836. 

In both cases, those under siege were vastly outnumbered and eventually fell. Leonidas was killed. So too were famous Americans Jim Bowie, William Travis and Davy Crockett. The conquerors paid dearly for their victories, however. Xerxes' attempt to annex Greece failed and Texas won independence from Mexico.

Poets and filmmakers immortalised both battles. Remember the Alamo long endured in the United States as a call to patriotism and independence. Similar pride rises in English football fans when someone asks what Lionel Messi might do on a rainy day in Stoke.

The erstwhile Britannia long stood as a British football fortress even though Stoke City won just the one major trophy, the 1972 League Cup. To date, Messi hasn’t found a reason to invade Staffordshire and thus provide an answer to the eternal question although former teammate and one-time heir to his kingdom, Bojan Krkic, didn’t fare too well as a Potter.

With heavy Champions League defeats away to Roma and Liverpool still keeping him awake nights, Messi commanded three invasions on San Mames and Mestalla in the current La Liga campaign. Neither sortie on Athletic Bilbao’s fabled ground ended well. The Basques emerged 1-0 victors in both the league and Copa del Rey. The Valencia mission ended twice as badly [do the math] with Los Che keeping a clean sheet and successfully defending their battlements against Messi and co for the first time since 2007. Tonight, he lays siege to the Napoli goal at San Paolo in the Champions League.

Fans and pundits recently fretted over Il Maestro’s four-game goalless streak in La Liga, virtually ignoring his six assists in those matches. When he scored four against lowly Eibar this weekend at the Nou Camp, everyone rejoiced. Some dared suggest Messi had rediscovered the form he hadn't lost just in time for this critical match. But that isn’t the pattern which Barcelona’s campaign weaves.

La Liga Home Away

The Blaugrana’s recent 5-goal romps against Eibar and Leganes both came before 99,000 ravenous Catalonians. They reign supreme in La Liga’s home table, nine points above Real and Atletico Madrid. The Merengues remain the sole opponent to take points from them in 13 matches. On the road, it’s another story. Barca lie fourth in the away table. In their 2019/20 league travels, they’ve won less than half their games, drawn three and lost four outright. Woeful travelling form, not any imagined scoring drought from their captain, locks the Cules in a tight battle with their Clasico rivals for La Liga’s crown.

Ironically, the Blaugrana find themselves with the upper hand because Real, true road warriors this term, discovered Levante’s Estadi Ciutat de Valencia is something of a fortress in its own right. While Messi played the farmer’s wife to Eibar’s 11 blind mice, Los Blancos fell to Paco Lopez’s Granotas, only their second defeat in 13 excursions this term.

While some believe Quique Setien’s squad will take heart from their captain’s four-star performance, the players know how difficult it will be to earn a result in Southern Italy. Not only are Napoli notoriously resistant on home ground, new boss Gennaro Gattuso is a manager to make Leonidas and Jim Bowie proud. Defending is his speciality.

As the squad transitions away from Carlo Ancelotti’s tactics, the Partenopei struggle more than usual at home, a 2-3 reversal to Lecce on 9 February not what Gattuso had in mind. On the other hand, he engineered big wins over Juventus and Lazio in January.

Barcelona will control possession. Messi, Antoine Griezmann and the rest of the attack will batter the Gli Azzurri backline, especially with Kalidou Koulibaly lost to a thigh injury, but Barca’s defenders must be wary themselves. Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens, Jose Callejon, and Hirving Lozano all thrive on the counterattack.

In order to gain the advantage in this tie, Barcelona can expect to pay a heavy price. Worse, they cannot tarry on the battlefield. Win or lose, they must do it all again at the Bernabeu on Sunday in El Clasico.

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Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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