Gennaro Gattuso’s reign as Napoli coach may have started amid turmoil but the former Italy international has put the Serie A club on the path towards a potential Champions League triumph against Barcelona.
And as a fascinating sub-plot, success on Saturday night could be the final nail in the coffin for Lionel Messi’s time at Camp Nou, as a last-16 exit from Europe’s elite competition would be unacceptable for the Argentine. Messi is out of contract next year and has already stalled on talks over a new deal — calling out the current Barca side as “weak”.
Napoli head for Camp Nou with a spring in their step and a first ever Champions League quarter-final berth beckoning. Barca meanwhile are still reeling from the ignominy of handing La Liga title rights over to arch-rivals Real Madrid from a winning post-COVID-19 break position, something that has clearly rankled with Messi. Rumours now abound that the playmaker is ready to move on to new pastures, with Inter Milan and Manchester City top of the gossip columns as his next destination.
Defeat to Napoli would see Barca dumped out of the Champions League at an obscenely early stage of this year’s unprecedentedly long tournament, and that may just sway Messi on where his future lies.
“We certainly want to write an important page in our history,” said Gattuso of a potential quarter-final spot — a feat which not even Argentine legend Diego Maradona managed to achieve with the club.
In the balance
Both sides are 1-1 after the last 16, first leg in the San Paulo Stadium way, way back in February.
But Messi’s Spaniards have not been beaten at home in the Champions League in seven years as they target a 13th consecutive quarter-final berth.
Napoli may have finished down in seventh in Serie A, but a Coppa Italia final triumph over Juventus has them hungry for more success.
Gattuso admitted his “head was already on Barcelona” as his side wrapped up their league season with a 3-1 win over Lazio last weekend.
“We will play on a high level stage and we want to be worthy of it,” he said. “We know that if we want to compete against Barcelona we will have to take risks.”
The big question will be how to stop six-time Ballon d’Or winner Messi, a problem which former AC Milan midfielder Gattuso would have happily tackled as a player.
“I can mark Messi only in my dreams, or on my son’s PlayStation,” said the 42-year-old former Rangers player, who won two Champions League titles with AC Milan.
“We are ready to face Barcelona. We have our style, we are prepared. But they have one player named Messi who can leave ten players behind.
“There’s a God of football, who makes you reap all that you’ve sown,” said Gattuso.
Under-pressure Barca coach Quique Setien says he is not worried that this be his last game in charge.
“At no point has the thought that it could be my last game passed through my head, we have prepared this game thinking that me and my coaching staff are going to continue,” Setien said.
“We’ve returned with renewed energy which has allowed us to have very good training sessions.”