Barcelona are slated to face either Chelsea or Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League. However, for that to happen, Barcelona need to get past a resurgent Napoli SSC side brimming with confidence after their recent Coppa Italia victory win over Juventus.
Bayern Munich currently hold a 3-0 first-leg advantage over Chelsea. It thus seems that Barcelona's most likely opponents for a place in the semifinals will be the Manuel Neuer-led record Bundesliga champions. But Barcelona themselves haven't yet reached the last eight stage.
Given their pathetic run of form recently, we cannot assume that Lionel Messi and company will surely reach the quarterfinals. Napoli have historically been a club who love to be projected as the underdogs, and they always relish a challenge when pitted against a more illustrious and powerful opponent.
After beating Juventus, Napoli will surely fancy their chances against Barcelona in the second leg of their Round of 16 clash. The two sides finished 1-1 at the Sao Paolo stadium on the 26th of February, before the Champions League was suspended because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
If truth be told, Barcelona were lucky to get a goal in that game. It came about thanks to a superb combination play between Nelson Semedo and Antoine Griezmann before the Frenchman scored the equaliser.
Earlier in the game, Dries Mertens's spectacular strike had given Napoli the lead. The Belgian will be looking to play a key role in the return leg and extend Barcelona's litany of Champions League heartbreak over the years.
Barcelona haven't won the Champions League since winning the treble of La Liga, Copa Del Rey and Champions League in 2015.
The Champions League has a different format this season
Unlike in other seasons when knock-out matches are played over two legs on a home-away basis, UEFA has decided to change the format and make it a one-game affair this season.
Teams will have one shot at progression, and home advantage will not be a factor. This is primarily because of two reasons. First, all the matches will be played in Lisbon, Portugal.
Two stadiums - Estadio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica and Estádio Jose Alvalade will host the matches. However, the final will be played at Estádio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica.
Teams who have not yet completed their Round of 16 ties will play according to the earlier format of the Champions League. It means Barcelona will play Napoli at the Nou Camp in their Round of 16 second-leg clash.
Barcelona should also be allowed to do that. Barcelona will obviously play without fans, but at least they will get to play in their own stadium.
Also Read: All Champions League winners by year
Will the new Champions League format benefit Barcelona?
Barcelona's recent struggles in the UEFA Champions League have come away from home.
In the quarterfinals against Roma in 2017-18, they had a commanding 4-1 win in the first leg at home.
However, in the second leg, Edin Džeko took just five minutes to score for Roma that kickstarted their astonishing 3-0 comeback victory. Roma ran out winners on away goals following a 4-4 aggregate draw.
It was one of the most humiliating nights in the history of the Catalan club. It was a catastrophic result, but nobody at FC Barcelona lost their jobs, not the least their manager Ernesto Valverde.
In the 2018-19 Champions League semifinals, Lionel Messi scored a spectacular free-kick that enabled Barcelona take a healthy 3-0 lead to Anfield. It was Barcelona's best opportunity to reach their first Champions League final in four years.
However, that was not to be. What followed next was a match of preposterous proportions. For the second year in a row, Barcelona squandered a three-goal first-leg advantage. They looked like an alien outfit at Anfield in the return leg, and a much-changed Liverpool won 4-0 on the night to complete a stunning 4-3 aggregate win.
As has already been said before, the concept of home and away matches has been taken away in this season's Champions League from the quarterfinal round onwards. In this new makeshift format of the competition, the most likely beneficiaries could actually be Barcelona.
If they beat Roma in their Round of 16-second leg at home, Barcelona won't play any more matches at home this season. In other words, they will not have to face opponents in 'away' games, something that has proved to be the club's undoing in the competition in the past two seasons.
The prospect of playing Champions League games without fans this season
Earlier, UEFA was considering the prospect of allowing fans into the stadium for the Champions Leagu final in Lisbon. However, more recently, there have been no new updates from them in this regard.
It now seems likely that UEFA may not want to risk a potential outbreak of COVID-19 by letting in people in the stands, even if matches are not played to full houses.
The priority now seems to be about finishing this season's edition of the competition. Besides, television revenues could also be a reason for not allowing fans in the stands. Some revenue is better than no revenue at all.
With the matches jampacked together, UEFA are looking to complete the Champions League this season. One look at the fixture schedule makes it clear.
The unfinished Round of 16 matches are scheduled between 7-8 August.
The quarterfinals are to be played between 12-15 August, after a break of just four days. Likewise, the semifinals come after a gap of just three days, from 18-19 August. The final is scheduled four days later, on the 23rd.
Thus, we may infer that fans may not play a part. Even if they do, the people coming to the stadium will be neutral fans, probably the locals in Lisbon.
The only team that could feel some modicum of 'home' support is Juventus. Given that there are no Portuguese teams left in the competition, the Cristiano Ronaldo factor may have the Lisbon faithful cheering for the Bianconeri.
Also Read: All Champions League winners by year
If Barcelona make it past Napoli, they will still have formidable opponents waiting for them. After Chelsea or Bayern, they could face Cristiano Ronaldo's Juventus, who may not have a better opportunity to end their two-decade title drought in the competition.
Eventually, it remains to be seen how Barcelona manage to make the most of the absence of 'away' games and ends an underwhelming season on a high. For that to happen, though, Barcelona will need an immediate improvement in their form.Published 10 Jul 2020, 20:22 IST