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Naples grabs Barça, FC Porto cuts Arsenal’s wings

Naples held FC Barcelona to a draw (1-1) on Wednesday in the round of 16 first leg of the Champions League, and still has reason to hope. For its part, FC Porto cut the wings of Arsenal (1-0) with a goal in added time.

The hoped-for miracle did not take place, nor did the dreaded rout: forty-eight hours after discovering their third coach of the season, Naples tied with FC Barcelona (1-1) in the round of 16 first leg of the Champions League, Wednesday February 21.

Appointed Monday evening to replace Walter Mazzarri, who himself took over from Rudi Garcia in mid-November, Francesco Calzona only had two training sessions to prepare for this shock that looked like a last chance for Napoli, left behind in the championship ( 9th, 27 points behind Inter) and eliminated from the Italian Cup.

The first thirty minutes should not have reassured the Italian technician who, assistant coach of Napoli between 2015 and 2018, then in 2021-22, found a club far from being sovereign in front of its public with seven defeats in all competitions this home season.

His team was initially clearly dominated by Barça, superior in all areas. The reigning Spanish champion immediately put Naples under pressure with two uninhibited attempts (4th and 8th) from the prodigy Lamine Yamal, who at 16 years and 223 days became the youngest player in the history of the C1 to compete a knockout match.

But it was the venerable 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.

Significant return for Osimhen

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.

Barcelona’s Portuguese striker Joao Felix (left) and Naples’ Kosovar defender Amir Rrahmani during the Champions League round of 16 first leg tie at the Diego-Armando-Maradona stadium in Naples on February 21, 2024 © Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

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 “masked scorer” was never in a position to shoot on goal, but gave hope to the Neapolitan fans in the first act.

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.

As 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 (75th).

Naples’ Nigerian striker Victor Osimhen controls the ball during the draw against Barcelona in the round of 16 first leg of the Champions League at the Diego-Armando-Maradona stadium in Naples on February 21, 2024 © Tiziana FABI / AFP

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 saw his shot graze the post in added time.

The Neapolitans can be relieved but they will have a big challenge to face in the return match on March 12 in Barcelona: in five European confrontations, they have still not beaten Barça.

Arsenal hit, sunk in Porto in added time

In the other round of 16 first leg, FC Porto, resistant in defense and sharp in attack, clipped the wings of Arsenal (1-0) with a superb goal from Galeno in added time.

The Portuguese club led by veteran Pepe gave a great lesson in humility and efficiency to Mikel Arteta’s team who, despite their lack of experience in the Champions League, were already starting to talk about host Wembley of the final. “The handbrake was a little too tight. Was it inexperience?” asked former Arsenal defender Martin Keown on TNT Sports.

The English club, with its youngsters Declan Rice and Bukayo Saka as standard bearers, will have to do more, and better, on March 12 at its Emirates in north London to reach the quarter-finals, fourteen years after the last ones played.

The “Gunners”, however, arrived at the Stadio do Dragao 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.

Galeno, clinic

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 (90th + 4). 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).

Galeno thrives when the Champions League music hits. They now have five goals and three assists in this 2023-2024 edition.

In the opposite camp, neither Bukayo Saka nor Gabriel Martinelli produced their usual sparks on the sides. And Kai Havertz, employed as a center forward, did not give much more cold sweat to the Portuguese rearguard. “We were not threatening enough, we lacked aggressiveness”, facing a team that was “very well organized defensively”, admitted Mikel Arteta.

This setback at the last minute brings back 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.

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 “Gunners” took on water on the way out (2-1 defeat), before marching on the Portuguese on the return to London (5-0).

With AFP

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