It wasn’t even that Napoli did anything wrong. It created chances. Its passing completion percentage was exactly the same as Barcelona’s. In fact, Napoli shaded possession against a team not often beaten in that area.
And still Napoli lost 3-1 Saturday and 4-2 on aggregate. Because the other team had Lionel Messi and they didn’t.
This is the cruel, zero-sum arithmetic that is necessary for Messi to exist. There is only one of him, and therefore only one team can have him.
That team remains Barca. And in Saturday’s resumption of the Champions League round of 16 tie between his side and Napoli, a full five and a half months since the 1-1 tie in Naples in the first leg, Messi was magnificent.
Although it had been three weeks since Barca finished its domestic season, a 5-0 thumping of Alaves that did little to soothe the disappointment of a title challenge that collapsed after the restart from the pandemic, Messi and Barca were efficient. Napoli, just a week on from its last Serie A game, where it slumped to a sorry seventh-place finish, was not.
It was in the 23rd minute that Messi distinguished himself most prominently, carrying on his prosperous relationship with the back of the net. He received the ball way out on the right, cut inside, twice wormed his way through a bushel of defenders in spite of falling down, and curled his finish just far enough out of David Ospina’s reach:
An astonishing few moments, another fine flash of Messi’s genius, the kind of play that makes him the protagonist in poems and paeans and contemplations of his actual humanity. Yet it probably won’t even crack the top 20 in the Messi highlight reel when it’s all said and done — which can’t be a whole lot longer, now that he has turned 33.
Seven minutes later, Luis Suarez’s shot was parried by Ospina, only for it to skip to Frenkie de Jong outside the box. The young Dutchman pinged the ball to Messi at the far post with the outside of his boot. Messi chested it down and subtly dinked it past Ospina. But the Video Assistant Referee denied the goal. Handball, apparently, which was by no means clear and obvious from the endless replays.
No matter, because in the 40th minute, Messi snuck up behind Kalidou Koulibaly, one of Europe’s most coveted defenders, and snitched the ball inside the box. The big defender swung his leg through the little forward, injuring them both. It somehow took VAR almost five minutes to sort out what was an obvious penalty, which Suarez converted as Messi nursed his smarting ankle.
That tripled the score. Barca had gone ahead in the 10th minute on a Clement Lenglet header from a corner, even if he pushed off Diego Demme in the preceding tussle.
But Napoli had forged its own chances. Just 90 seconds in, Dries Mertens, scorer of Napoli’s equalizer in the first leg, shanked a volley from an inviting spot. Then in first-half injury time, Mertens was knocked down in the box by Gerard Pique, and Lorenzo Insigne coolly converted the ensuing penalty.
And late on, Arek Milik came on as a sub, scored, only to have his goal disallowed. That was followed by sustained Napoli pressure on Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s goal, coming as close as a ball dinking off the near post from a Chucky Lozano header, almost surprising the German goalkeeper.
It has now been more than seven years since Barca has lost at home in Europe, a run of 36 games. Even with midfield stalwarts Sergio Busquets and Arturo Vidal injured, Barca didn’t waver.
Elsewhere, Bayern Munich easily survived what little challenge Chelsea posed with a 7-1 aggregate victory. That means the Bavarians are the only domestic champions in the Big Four leagues to advance to next week’s one-leg quarterfinals. On Friday, Spanish champion Real Madrid was knocked out by Manchester City and now-nine-time Italian victor Juventus was upset by Lyon. In March, back in another lifetime, defending European champion and new English Premier League champion Liverpool had been eliminated by Atletico Madrid.
In RB Leipzig, Atalanta and Lyon, several sides have made unlikely runs to the conclusion of this beleaguered tournament in Portugal. That speaks to the open-ended nature of the thing. Single-elimination quarterfinals and semifinals, in addition to a final that consists of one game just as it does in every other year, will favor more upsets. And until Saturday, Barca would have been considered one of those underdog teams.
But for all of Barca’s difficulties in its first completely trophy-less season since 2003-04 — so far, anyway — just three more wins separate it from a first Champions League title in five years. That isn’t insurmountable. Not to any team equipped with Messi doing the sort of things he did Saturday.