There were five minutes to go when Luuk de Jong was introduced at the Camp Nou and maybe it should have been more. Barcelona were drawing 1-1 with Napoli in their first game in this competition for two decades, seeking the goal that would give them a lead for the second leg in Italy. They almost got it too, the Dutch striker they had tried to move on in the winter coming closer in a frantic finale than anyone else had done in the previous 85 minutes.
In the end, though, De Jong’s comic-book moment wasn’t quite enough, his overhead kick flashing just past the post, and Barcelona ran out of time. Ferran Torres scored the penalty that levelled things after Piotr Zielinski gave Napoli the lead, but he above all will reflect on the ones that got away on a night when Barcelona and Napoli were playing for a place in a competition that they aspire to avoid.
“It annoys me to hear the Champions League anthem and not be part of it,” Xavi had said. Instead, he stood before this game at an unusual time, listening to an unusual anthem and watching his team join Napoli in taking the knee, which was unusual too. Barcelona had not played on a Thursday night in Europe’s second competition since they faced Celtic in 2004.
The opponents, though, were more familiar – Napoli and Barcelona had met in the last sixteen of the Champions League just two years ago – and there were 73,500 in the Camp Nou, 5,000 or so of those from Italy, a sense that this did matter and a sound to match. Xavi had called it an opportunity, a trophy this club had never won and one that might allow them to take a Champions League place far from certain via La Liga. Luciano Spalletti felt the same, no concessions made in his line-up.
There was an intensity about Napoli too: while Barcelona had most of the ball, the Italians were swift and incisive when they broke, able to escape into the space beyond the home defence. That was shown when Victor Osimhen was brilliantly released up the left after 20 minutes, dashing onto a beautifully bent ball and into the area only to be denied by Marc André ter Stegen at the near post. Every time Osimhen set off, the threat was palpable, Barcelona struggling to handle him.
Barcelona started with three of their winter signings up front together for the first time. The fourth signing, Dani Alves, was not registered for the competition, a decision Xavi admitted to regretting already the day before. Without him, Adama Traoré found himself double-teamed, denied the room to run. Of the three forwards, it was Ferran Torres who would get the first half chances, although not until Pedri had shot over and Nico Gonzalez had drawn a sharp save from Alex Meret, and he did not take them.
Napoli did – and immediately. Played in by Pedri and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Torres’s shot went way wide with the goal opening before him just before the half an hour. He was still lamenting that miss when Napoli scores. A lovely exchange between Piotr Zielinski and Eljif Elmas, a double one-two on the right, opened up Barcelona. Ter Stegen saved Zielinski’s initial shot but he was fastest to the rebound, smashing the ball into the top of the net.
Torres curled another effort wide and headed over, while Kalidou Koulibaly recovered astonishingly quickly to cut down Traoré as he was sent racing through, but Barcelona reached half way without finding a way through.
The volume rose in the second half and so did the velocity, Nico the most active, leading his team-mates forward and twice taking aim from around the edge of the area. The breakthrough moment went unseen, though. Traoré’s cross had brushed the hand of Juan Jesus, unnoticed by anyone here but spotted in the VAR room. Istvan Kovacs was called to the screen and eventually pointed to the spot. This time, Ferran finished cooly.
An hour had gone and Barcelona were on top now, Aubameyang firing over just after. Xavi made a treble change that included Ousmane Dembele, who was whistled and booed as he came on and with every touch for the next few minutes. Until, that was, the applause that began to break out each time he received possession eclipsed it, reflecting a realisation that, actually, it might be better to support him. They needed him, after all.
Dembele almost escaped Juan Jesus and then he got away up the right but couldn’t pull back for Aubameyang. When the roles were reversed soon after, Dembele’s shot was blocked. Still no way through, it was time for De Jong, a huge roar greeting his introduction with five minutes left. He would get the chance to be a hero in a wild finale too, although the best opportunities fell elsewhere.
First, Dembele and Sergiño Dest advanced on the right and supplied Pedri who flicked it to Torres, only to see him sky his effort. A moment later, Dembele again escaped, this time his pullback, right across the six-yard box, didn’t find a finisher. And then De Jong sent a sensational overhead kick just past the post, this grand old stadium chanting his name and suddenly silenced when Dries Mertens should have won it at the other shooting straight at Ter Stegen when he was provided with a glorious chance to win it.
Torres should have won it too, but another shot sailed into the stands, taking Barcelona’s opportunity with it. There was still time for one last header for De Jong but a draw would have to do on their first Thursday night for long time.