Barcelona beat Napoli to reach Champions League quarter-finals

Barcelona’s Spanish defender #33 Pau Cubarsi (R) and Napoli’s Nigerian forward #09 Victor Osimhen vie for the ball during the UEFA Champions League last 16 second leg football match between FC Barcelona and SSC Napoli at the Estadi Olimpic Lluis Companys in Barcelona on March 12, 2024. AFP

Barcelona survived a nervy second half to beat Napoli 3-1 on Tuesday and reach the Champions League quarter-finals 4-2 on aggregate.

Xavi Hernandez’s side came flying out of the blocks with goals from Fermin Lopez and Joao Cancelo but after Amir Rrahmani pulled one back, the Catalans started to sweat.

Italian champions Napoli, who salvaged a 1-1 draw in the last-16 first leg, were finally beaten when Robert Lewandowski swept home from close range.

It is the first time four-time winners Barcelona have reached the last eight of the competition since 2020, and they did so without injured midfield trio Pedri, Gavi and Frenkie de Jong.

Coach Xavi Hernandez said he was leaving at the end of the season in January and his team have gone on a run of nine games without defeat after that decision.

Teenage stars Lamine Yamal and Pau Cubarsi have been key in that run, and both excelled against Napoli on a night which offered some relief to Barcelona amid a bleak season.

Xavi demanded the fans turn their temporary Olympic Stadium home on the city’s Montjuic hill into a pressure cooker, and they duly obliged. Over 50,000 spectators marked the club’s largest attendance this season.

Francesco Calzona’s Napoli wilted as the Spanish champions came out of the blocks flying.

Electric 16-year-old winger Yamal made strong inroads down the right and curled over in the opening stages.

The best chances fell to Lopez and the 20-year-old opened the scoring with his third attempt after 15 minutes.

Cancelo fed Raphinha who cut the ball back into the area for Lopez, who tucked home.

While he may lack the metronomic precision of Pedri, the midfielder provides thrust and an insatiable desire to shoot.

Two minutes later and the Catalans doubled their lead against the shellshocked visitors, with Yamal starting the move by breaking loose in his own half on the counter-attack.

The winger played in Raphinha and although the Brazilian hit the post Cancelo was running in to roll home the rebound.

Napoli battled their way back in when Matteo Politano slipped in down the right, with Ronald Araujo playing him onside.

The Italy winger crossed for Rrahmani who slotted home cleanly to pull Napoli back into the tie.

Napoli were almost level moments later but Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen made a superb save, tipping over Giovanni Di Lorenzo’s header.

The Italians started the second half strongly, with Barcelona forced back into their own half, aimlessly clearing the ball.

Xavi took action by bringing on Sergi Roberto and Oriol Romeu for Lopez and Andreas Christensen, aiming to freshen up the midfield and give his team new impetus.

Raphinha and Lewandowski drew saves from Alex Meret before Yamal struck from close range, but he was offside.

Danish winger Jesper Lindstrom headed narrowly wide for Napoli, before Lewandowski settled the tie after Ilkay Gundogan and Sergi Roberto combined to set him up.

Second-half jitters showed Barcelona are far from their former glory but in Yamal, Raphinha and Cancelo in particular they have the quality to trouble any prospective quarter-final opponent.

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