If Barcelona have been weighed down by the burden of expectation in recent years in the Champions League, they should feel freer than ever ahead of today’s last 16, second leg against Napoli.
Few expect an easy passage into the quarter-finals and if they get there, even fewer expect them to survive against Bayern Munich, the tournament’s most convincing team so far, who will surely finish the job against Chelsea in their last-16 tie.
With the advantage of an away goal from the 1-1 draw in Italy in February, Barca would usually feel confident against a side that just finished seventh in Serie A, and at the Camp Nou, where they have suffered only one defeat in 58 Champions League games.
But after a miserable end to LaLiga, that flipped a two-point lead over Real Madrid into a five-point deficit, Barcelona resume their European tilt as outsiders, behind Bayern, Juventus, perhaps Atletico Madrid given their favourable draw, and certainly the winner of Real Madrid and Manchester City.
“The fans are running out of patience because we’re not giving them anything,” said Lionel Messi as Barca’s title chase unravelled. “If we want to fight for the Champions League, a lot has to change because like this, we will lose to Napoli as well.”
The hope might be Barcelona can turn pessimism to their advantage, if the result is a team free of tension, able to view the Champions League as a fresh start after a failed campaign in Spain.
When they capitulated against Roma and Liverpool, Barca’s players talked about crumbling under pressure, a weakness that has been exposed all too many times since.
“They were strong and from a psychological point of view they fed off our fragility,” said then-coach Ernesto Valverde after the Liverpool loss. “They came at us and we failed to react,” said Sergio Busquets of Roma.