In what was an action-packed Champions League encounter, two moments of magic from Lionel Messi stood out and ushered Barcelona into the quarter-finals with a 3-1 win.
The first saw him inexplicably evade four bemused Napoli defenders, while largely on his hands and knees, before steering in a sublime finish off balance. The second featured a brilliant piece of chest control to leave his marker for dead before lifting the ball over the onrushing keeper from close range.
It seemed like everyone but those of Napoliallegiance rued the fact that a hint of handball cancelled what was a Messi special. Perhaps fewer were aggrieved that it also ruled out a sumptuous assist from Frenkie de Jong.
After carrying the ball forward,he played in Jordi Alba whose pass saw Luis Suarez force David Ospina into action. And when the rebound bounced into his path, De Jong didn’t miss a beat, instinctively lobbing it on the half volley with the outside of his boot perfectly for Messi who had peeled away at the far post.
The Argentine did the rest, but not many would’ve made that pass. It was a moment of genius.
Sadly, Barcelona fans haven’t seen enough of that from De Jong in his maiden seasonwith the club. Having arrived from Ajax for 75 million as the most-sought-after midfielder in the game last summer, he’s failed to really make his mark. And the 23-year-old is the first to admit that.
“Five and a half, six? Something like that,” De Jong recently responded to Dutch daily Trouw when asked to rate his first season at Camp Nou.
“I don’t think I have played many bad games, but there have not been many games in which I really excelled. It was just really flat. Too flat.
On Saturday night, De Jong most certainly excelled and perhaps Sergio Busquets’ absence through suspension had a hand in that. The experienced Spain international occupies the deep-lying playmaker role that the Dutchman flourished in at Ajax and maintains as his best position.
He’d likely take over the reins at some point, but seemingly not as long asthe 32-year-old remains capable.
However, even in Busquets’ absence De Jong was denied that holding midfield role with Sergi Roberto slotting into it instead and failing to impress. Quique Setien persisted with the former Ajax star in more advanced role on the left side of a central midfield three.
De Jong has the acceleration and ability on the ball to advance with it and link up with others in the final third and did that exceptionally against Napoli. He’s always been accustomed to the Busquets role, but has been asked to emulate Andres Iniesta instead and on this occasion he did rather well.
He completed all four of his dribbles and had a pass completion of 94 per cent in the final third [92 per cent overall] while also recovering the ball four times. De Jong’s natural tendency is to go looking for the ball, but his role within Barcelona’s system has required him to be more patient; and that’s been his biggest challenge.
With Busquets out of the equation and the likes of Roberto and Ivan Rakitic not particularly impressing, the home team’s play seemed to gravitate towards him even though he wasn’t occupying the position of conductor.
Frenkie De Jongs game by numbers vs. Napoli:
100% take-ons completed
94% final third passes completed
92% pass accuracy
4 ball recoveries
2 fouls suffered
1 chance created
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) August 8, 2020
With the onus on him to dictate Barca’s attacking play, De Jong came into his own and grew in stature the longer the game went on.
In retrospect, an underwhelming first season for him at Barcelona makes perfect sense. He’s only youngand left a familiar, nurturing environment to join a football behemoth floundering off the pitch while being dysfunctional on it.
A hefty transfer fee only made the scrutiny more intense and to complicate matters, he immediately needed to adapt his natural game.
So an average first campaign in Spain should take nothing away from De Jong’s standing as one of the world’s best midfielders.
The win over Napoli showed how influential he can be when afforded a bigger role. Barcelona should be very excited by this glimpse of his genius and take active measures to draw it out.
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