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Friday, September 18, 2020

Barcelona may need youth to get past Napoli and reach Champions League quarterfinals

Barcelona coach Quique Setien says that he is ready to count on youngsters Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig to eliminate Napoli and advance to the Champions League final eight in Portugal.

By: AP | August 7, 2020 6:56:48 pm
Barca earned a 1-1 draw at Napoli before the pandemic brought most sports to a halt. (Source: AP)

Barcelona coach Quique Setien says that he is ready to count on youngsters Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig to eliminate Napoli and advance to the Champions League final eight in Portugal.

Barcelona will be without midfielders Sergio Busquets, Arturo Vidal and Arthur for Saturday’s second leg of their round-of-16 tie. The match will be played five months after the Spanish side earned a 1-1 draw at Napoli before the pandemic brought most sports to a halt.

“Both Rique and Ansu are ready to play,” Setien said Friday. “They have performed and played pretty well and could perfectly well start (against Napoli). And if they do start, I am sure they will be guaranteed to play well.”

The 20-year-old Puig has a good chance to earn his debut in Europe’s top-tier club competition with both Busquets and Vidal suspended for the critical match. Arthur has had a falling out with the club after securing his transfer to Juventus for next season and refusing to return to team practice.

Setien values Puig’s passing and ball-control skills, which remind some Barcelona fans of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, and rewarded him with a bigger role during the final stretch of the Spanish league.

Fati, 17, made a huge splash this season by becoming the youngest player to score in the Spanish league and the Champions League, among other precocious scoring milestones.

With Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez set to start in attack, Fati could get picked over fellow forward Antoine Griezmann, who was cleared to play by team doctors on Friday after having recovered from a right thigh injury last month.

Clement Lenglet was also cleared by team doctors and will likely play with Gerard Pique in the center of the defense with Samuel Umtiti still injured.

With only 13 first-team players available, Setien has called up seven members of Barcelona’s youth squad, including American Konrad de la Fuente.

“It would have been better to have all our players available, but that is not the case,” Setien said. “We are going to have to rely on many players from our youth team. We have to adapt and we will do our best not to miss the players who can’t be with us.”

The match at Camp Nou will be played without spectators due to local health regulations. Barcelona and large areas of northeast Spain are seeing a recent spike in cases of the virus that causes COVID-19, but health officials have assured UEFA that the game is safe to play. despite the concerns of Napoli.

Setien said that he is confident that keeping his job does not hinge on qualifying for the ‘bubble’ Champions League tournament to be played in Lisbon later this month. Setien has been under intense pressure since Barcelona lost the Spanish league to Real Madrid last month, when Messi called his team ‘weak’ and said that unless the team turned things around it would lose to Napoli.

“In no moment have I thought that tomorrow’s game could be my last,” Setien said. “We are focused on advancing and playing the rest of the competition in Portugal with the same sense of excitement that we feel now.”

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