Champions League: Naples and Barcelona neutralize each other, Arsenal falls to the wire in Porto

Hopes for Naples, doubts for Arsenal

Champions League: Naples and Barcelona neutralize each other, Arsenal falls to the wire in Porto

Hopes for Naples, doubts for Arsenal. Forty-eight hours after discovering their third coach of the season, Napoli tied the match with FC Barcelona (1-1) on Wednesday February 21 in the last round of the Champions League round of 16 first leg. . At the same time, the Gunners collapsed in added time in Porto (1-0), promising a tempting return match on March 12 in north London to try to reach the quarter-finals, fourteen years later their last appearance at this level.

Appointed Monday evening to replace Walter Mazzarri, who himself succeeded Rudi Garcia in mid-November, the new coach of Naples, Francesco Calzona, only had two training sessions to prepare for the clash against FC Barcelona, ​​then that the Italian club is left behind in its championship (9th in the ranking) and eliminated from the National Cup.

The first thirty minutes should not have reassured the Italian technician who, assistant coach of Napoli between 2015 and 2018, then in 2021-2022, found a club far from being sovereign in front of its public with seven defeats in all competitions this season home. His team was initially clearly dominated by Barça, superior in all areas. The reigning Spanish champion put the pressure on from the start with two unabashed attempts from prodigy Lamine Yamal, who at 16 years and 223 days became the youngest player in the history of the Champions League to play in an elimination match direct.

But it was the “veterans” Robert Lewandowski, 35, and Ilkay Gündogan, 33, who really thrilled the more than 50,000 spectators at the Diego-Armando-Maradona stadium in quick succession. The Pole, perfectly launched by Joao Cancelo in the Neapolitan penalty area, came up against Alex Meret (21st), while his Turkish teammate almost surprised the Italian goalkeeper from afar on the following action.

Weaned from the ball during the first half hour, Napoli ended up coming out of their shell and regaining confidence, to the point of confiscating the ball from the suddenly extinguished Catalans. The Italian champions began to find Victor Osimhen who, returning from the African Cup of Nations, played his first match in the Azurro jersey since December 23. The Nigerian striker was never in a position to shoot on goal, but gave the Neapolitan fans hope in the first half.

A hope quickly dashed upon returning from the locker room: Barça regained control of the ball, a domination materialized in the 60th minute by Lewandowski who, served in the area by Pedri, scored his fifth goal in four matches (1-0).

While he was about to be replaced, Osimhen, exhausted, put the two teams back to back, making the most of the Catalans' fatigue. On a pass from André-Frank Zambo Anguissa in the area, the Nigerian got the better of his defender and scored the goal of hope for Napoli (1-1, 75th).

Like the end of the first period, Barça lost its footing and showed all of Europe why it was in third place in La Liga, eight points behind Real Madrid. It was Naples who finished the best and could have won when Anguissa narrowly missed the target with a header (85th), even if Gündogan also saw his shot graze the post in added time.

“I congratulated my players because they responded well and finished strong. Until the end, they believed they could win this match, their state of mind against a very strong opponent pleased me a lot,” said Neapolitan coach Francesco Calzona.

The Neapolitans still have a big challenge ahead in the return match on March 12 in Barcelona: in five European confrontations, they have still not beaten Barça.

FC Porto, led by veteran Pepe, gave a great lesson in efficiency to Arsenal who were favorites in this confrontation but left with a defeat carrying doubts and questions (1-0). “The handbrake was a little too tight. Was it inexperience? “, asked former Arsenal defender Martin Keown on TNT Sports.

The Gunners yet arrived in Portugal escorted by five consecutive victories, with 21 goals scored by an all-out attack, and therefore confidence at the zenith. But the gap in level which separates certain Premier League clubs, such as the latest victims West Ham (6-0) and Burnley (5-0), and a club like FC Porto, accustomed to continental games, has revealed itself pretty big Wednesday.

The third in the Portuguese championship also has a formidable weapon with Galeno, his 26-year-old Brazilian left winger, author of a magnificent curling shot from outside the area at the end of added time (90 4). Galeno thrives when the Champions League music hits. He now has five goals and three assists in this 2023-2024 edition.

At the start of the match, it was he who had already slipped in front of William Saliba, too wait-and-see, to send a ball onto the post of David Raya, already overtaken (21st). In the opposite camp, neither Bukayo Saka nor Gabriel Martinelli produced their usual sparks on the sides. And Kai Havertz, used as a center forward, did not give much more cold sweat to the Portuguese rearguard.

“We were not threatening enough, we lacked aggression”, facing a team that was “very well organized defensively”, admitted Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta. The final result, “it’s a real blow in the teeth, because we conceded a goal late,” admitted, for his part, English midfielder Declan Rice at the microphone of TNT Sports. “When it's 0-0 and you look at the clock and it's the 93rd minute, if you're not in a position to win the match, well don't lose it,” he said. he adds.

This extremis setback awakens painful memories for Arsenal supporters. In its last seven appearances in the Champions League, the London team has been eliminated at the round of 16 stage each time. But history can also be a source of hope. The last time Arsenal reached the quarter-finals, in 2010, it was at the expense of FC Porto. Arsène Wenger's players were beaten in the first leg (2-1), before defeating the Portuguese on the return leg in London (5-0).