Napoli actually started off the best. It wasn’t just Dries Mertens slamming the ball against the post in the first 90 seconds – they also glided the ball more confidently, appearing more precise, getting the second balls faster. Unfortunately, after a quarter of a match, they were also 2-0.
Barcelona’s lead in the 10th minute came from a left corner corner Clément Lenglet passing the ball past David Ospina after first pushing Diego Demme into Kalidou Koulibaly like a billiard cannon. Thirteen minutes later, with Napoli committing numbers forward, Barcelona plundered a second: Messi falling to the turf under the two challenges of Lorenzo Insigne and Mário Rui, and yet somehow was recovering always on his feet.
With the ball, of course: He’s Messi, after all, and as he regained his balance the ball kind of clung to him like a loyal dog. With his foot giving way again, he managed to stand just long enough to get the ball past Ospina and practically in the one box he couldn’t reach.
It could have been even worse for Naples. A second half-hourly goal for Messi was scored after VAR discovered he had used his hand to control the ball after knocking down Frenkie de Jong’s delightful cross and lifting the ball delicately on Ospina. But on the stroke of half-time, Barcelona won a penalty: Koulibaly styling a horrific half by cutting off the back of Messi’s calf and knocking him down. Luiz Suárez slammed the ball at home to put the tie virtually beyond Napoli’s reach.
And yet, in the very last shakes of the first half, Napoli pulled out a goal: Ivan Rakitic knocking down Mertens in the box and Insigne pushing back the penalty after another endless delay from VAR. If this was a reminder to Barcelona of their own essential fallibility, then it was one that went unanswered: At the start of the second half they looked inert, slow, if not a little complacent. Mertens had a blocked shot. Countless crosses were desperately pointed or struck.
Most overwhelming of all, the Barcelona midfielder – even though he lacked the normal bite and punch from Arturo Vidal and Sergio Busquets – frequently let Napoli just play the ball in front of them, around them, behind them, displaying a passivity that wasn’t just sick. -advisable but in a way apostate: a distortion of everything Barcelona like to think they cherish.
Remarkably, Setien waited until the 84th minute before using the first of his 12 available substitutes, removing ineffective Antoine Griezmann. By that point, Napoli had already threatened to cut the deficit further: Hirving Lozano sent the ball just over the bar with his first touch of the game, and Arkadiusz Milik returned home with 10 minutes left, to be signaled a fraction of offside.
The full time was greeted with the usual muted celebrations, the usual handshakes and punches. A roaring discontent has long permeated this club, a club that has even cherished wins in the continent’s flagship knockout competition can never quite dispel. And yet, for all their faults, in Barcelona’s last eight strides: hardworking, slow and a team dangerously dependent on a man’s pocket of miracles.