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Osimhen's intervention leaves bitter taste for Barca

Xavi's men fail to make dominance count as Nigerian's strike rescues Napoli

Updated: 2024-02-23 08:47
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Napoli forward Victor Osimhen (No 9) celebrates after netting his team's equalizer in Wednesday's Champions League last-16, first-leg match against Barcelona at Stadio Diego Armando Maradona. The game ended 1-1, with the return leg in Spain on March 12. [Photo/AFP]

NAPLES, Italy — Xavi Hernandez is optimistic of Barcelona reaching the quarterfinals of the Champions League despite watching his dominant team held 1-1 at Napoli on Wednesday.

Barcelona was the better team for large parts of the game in Naples but returns to Spain level after Victor Osimhen snatched a draw with the host's only shot on target.

Xavi's team, who scored through Robert Lewandowski, created more chances and was agonizingly close to getting a last-gasp win when Ilkay Gundogan's low shot whizzed just wide.

"Playing like this we have a good chance of going through. We played well in attack and defense, and after the goal we created more chances," Xavi told reporters.

"We deserved to win but this is the Champions League, if you give them a space then you can be punished.

"It's a shame that the result didn't reflect the play. But I'm satisfied because we applied what we have worked on. I'm proud of the image the squad gave of itself. We're ready to compete in the return leg."

New Napoli boss Francesco Calzona was also happy with the result of his first match, which he prepared for hurriedly after becoming the Italian champion's third manager of the season on Monday night.

"What I liked best was the desire to get back into the game. We need to work on tactical things, but I also got good responses from the substitutes so I'm happy," said Calzona.

"We could have lost but we drew, and we even had a chance to win. So I'm pleased.

"Playing against Barca is difficult for everyone but the draw keeps us in it. We want to go through because Napoli has to have that ambition. It will be a difficult match for us."

'Huge player'

Osimhen was described as "a huge player" after marking his return for Napoli with a goal that gave the Italian champion a 1-1 draw and hopes that a dreadful season might have reached a turning point.

Nigeria forward Osimhen rolled home the equalizer with 15 minutes left of the first leg of their last-16 tie at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, in his first match since returning to his club from the Africa Cup of Nations.

"He's a huge player for us," Napoli skipper Giovanni Di Lorenzo told Amazon Prime Video.

"He's come back with the right attitude. We knew he would though, as he's a great player and professional. He'll give us a hand in the matches to come."

Osimhen had last played for Napoli in a 2-0 defeat at Roma just before Christmas, when he was one of two players from his team to be sent off.

His ninth club goal of the season came at a crucial time, not just in the match but in Napoli's campaign as it plays under its new manager Calzona, its league title defense up in flames.

Calzona had less than 48 hours to prepare for his first match in charge after replacing Walter Mazzarri on Monday night, and Osimhen gave Napoli a chance of progressing despite a disjointed performance by his team.

'Good starting point'

Napoli heads into next month's second leg in the Catalan capital knowing that with Osimhen in the team there is always a chance of a goal regardless of the overall team display.

"It's a good starting point," added Di Lorenzo.

"We know that we need to do more but we've taken a step forward and now we have a chance in the return leg. It's all to play for."

For Barca, it was the latest misstep of a complicated campaign at the end of which Xavi will leave, assuming president Joan Laporta doesn't sack the coach before then.

The away side had the better chances but couldn't put Napoli away and could yet pay for its wastefulness.

"We're a little disappointed with the result because we could have come out with a win," Ronald Araujo told Movistar.

"Napoli had a lot of the ball in the last 15 minutes but they barely created a chance. The Champions League is like that."

Barca showed why it was pre-match favorite in the opening exchanges, dominating the ball and creating shooting opportunities which dulled an initially raucous crowd.

Teen sensation Lamine Yamal came close to becoming the Champions League's youngest ever scorer when his ninth-minute effort was saved by Alex Meret.

In the 23rd minute, the away side twice went close to taking the lead. Lewandowski's flicked finish was kept out by Meret who then tipped away a long-range rocket from Gundogan.

From that point on, Napoli's presence in the game grew, but the host failed to let off a single effort on goal before the break despite pushing Barca back.

Gundogan forced another smart save from Meret shortly after the restart after being put through by Yamal before blasting over another presentable chance.

Barca grabbed the lead its performance deserved on the hour when Lewandowski collected Pedri's pass and drilled a perfect low finish past Meret.

With the Catalan giant looking like it would push home its advantage, Osimhen pounced as Inigo Martinez slipped on the edge of the area to level the score and transform the atmosphere in the stadium.

Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and substitute Giovanni Simeone both had efforts off target as Napoli pushed for a winner, but it was Barca who went inches away from snatching a late victory.

Gundogan's frustrating night in front of goal continued deep into stoppage time as the Germany international midfielder's low effort flew just wide.


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