A second-half strike from Antoine Griezmann earned Barcelona a 1-1 draw with Napoli in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie on Tuesday night at the Stadio San Paolo.
For a large duration of the match Barcelona looked a listless side, bereft of ideas. Things were looking bleak after Dries Mertens gave Napoli a 1-0 lead, but a switch of midfielders paved the way for Griezmann’s equaliser, giving the Catalans a precious away goal going into next month’s second leg.
Still, it came at a cost, with Sergio Busquets set to miss the return leg due to an accumulation of yellow cards, while a late sending off for Arturo Vidal means the Chilean will also be unavailable next month.
Quique Setien opted for Samuel Umtiti at centre-back over Clement Lenglet, while Ivan Rakitic got the nod over Arthur Melo in midfield and Vidal was up top, meaning youngster Ansu Fati was on the bench.
It was a sleepy start with Barcelona playing their normal possession game, but their movement was slow and it was fairly easy for the Napoli defence to handle.
Meanwhile, on the rare occasion when Barcelona gave up possession in a slightly vulnerable position, Napoli looked to strike quickly on the counter, and that led to the opening goal a half-hour into the match.
Junior Firpo lost the ball at midfield and Napoli seized on the chance, with Piotr Zielinski crossing for Dries Mertens and the Belgian sent a cracking effort into the top right corner of goal to make it 1-0.
Messi cut a frustrated figure. The Argentine had to retreat to where the Barcelona defenders were stationed just to receive the ball. Otherwise, any time he tried to get forward, he was surrounded by an ever-revolving triangle or square of blue shirts.
The start of the second half looked exactly like the first: Barcelona completely incapable of penetrating the Napoli defence, so Setien called on Arthur to open things up in midfield and replaced Rakitic.
It immediately paid dividends and allowed Busquets to filter a pass to Nelson Semedo down the right flank and the cross from the right-back met the foot of Griezmann, who hit a first-time shot past David Ospina for the 1-1 equaliser.
The Barcelona goal opened things up as Napoli looked to respond, and another Barcelona giveaway led to a golden opportunity for Jose Callejon, who received a pass and found himself one-on-one with Ter Stegen, but the German shot-stopper came up with a big block.
The final quarter of the match had Barcelona on the front foot, but still very much a toss-up in terms of the final score. Setien brought on Ansu Fati for the final minutes in place of Griezmann in hopes of a late spark. However, a foolish second yellow card and sending off for Vidal extinguished any thoughts of a late winner, forcing Barcelona to settle for the draw.
1.- Napoli: Ospina; Di Lorenzo, Manolas, Maksimovic, Mario Rui; Fabian Ruiz, Demme (Allan, min. 80), Zielinski; Callejon (Politano, min. 74), Mertens (Milik, min. 54), Insigne.
1.- Barcelona: Ter Stegen; Semedo, Pique (Lenglet, min. 93), Umtiti, Junior Firpo; Busquets, De Jong, Rakitic (Arthur, min. 56); Messi, Griezmann (Ansu Fati, min. 87), Vidal.
Goals: 1-0, min. 30: Mertens; 1-1, min. 57: Griezmann.
Referee: Felix Brych (Germany).
Yellow cards: Busquets (Min. 49) for Barcelona, Insigne (Min. 61) for Napoli, Messi (Min. 67) for Barcelona, Griezmann (Min. 83) for Barcelona, Vidal (Min. 88) for Barcelona, Mario Ruiz (Min. 88) for Napoli, Vidal (Min. 89) for Barcelona.
Red cards: Vidal (Min. 89) for Barcelona.
Stadium: San Paolo.