Ronaldo failed as Messi helps Barca battle into CL quarter-finals

They might have lost LaLiga’s title race, but Barcelona at least got one over on Real Madrid by reaching the Champions League last eight.

A day after Madrid fell in Manchester, Quique Setien’s Blaugrana, maligned this season for lacking a clear plan and a firm backbone, showed both in overcoming Napoli at Camp Nou.

Juventus were also knocked out on Friday, Cristiano Ronaldo’s two goals not enough to spare them from elimination by Lyon or to keep Maurizio Sarri in a job.

Not so for Lionel Messi: he scored, had another disallowed and won a penalty converted by Luis Suarez as Barca won 3-1 in the last-16 second leg and 4-2 on aggregate to reach a 13th straight quarter-final.

The suggestion is Sarri was facing the sack regardless of the Lyon result, but it seems unlikely Juve would have pulled the trigger had he got them into a quarter-final tie with Manchester City.

The same can likely be said for Setien, who would almost certainly not have been Barca coach much longer had Napoli triumphed, and who may well find his days numbered if they cannot find a way to best red-hot Bayern Munich, who destroyed Chelsea 7-1 on aggregate, in the last eight.

Messi – and Setien – deserve real credit for Saturday’s victory, though. Those nightmarish visits to Roma and Liverpool in the past two seasons will not be forgotten, but this time, as tension tightened in a crowdless Camp Nou, Barca showed they can hold their nerve.

It was mostly an un-Barca, un-Setien-like performance: perfunctory, moderately adventurous, the best work done largely without the ball.

Napoli had close to 80 per cent of the possession in the first 10 minutes and then found themselves a goal behind when Clement Lenglet headed in an Ivan Rakitic corner. It was hard to know which of Setien or Gennaro Gattuso seemed more surprised.

It was a simplistic goal befitting a rare uncomplicated approach from Setien. Messi, Suarez and Antoine Griezmann were joined in a three-pronged attack, with licence to roam and a requirement to hustle for the ball high up the pitch.

Behind them, with Sergio Busquets suspended, were Rakitic, Sergi Roberto and the excellent Frenkie De Jong, whose primary task was to disrupt as much as dictate.

It was a Barca reminiscent of Luis Enrique’s first season in charge, when Messi, Suarez and Neymar wreaked havoc at the head of a solid base. Of course, the blueprint of 2014-15 is not a bad one to follow – it won them their last Champions League trophy.

Messi, it is said, is borderline obsessed with winning the competition again this year. He certainly played like it in the first 45 minutes.

His goal was one of those maddening combinations of skill and tenacity that must exasperate defenders, as he bustled into the area, fell to his knees, scrambled back up and found the bottom-left corner while falling again, all before Mario Rui had realised where he was.

Messi scored again, chesting the ball down and smashing it in, only for VAR to penalise the faintest grazing of the ball on his arm.

He had the technology to thank before the break, though, when he hustled and harried Kalidou Koulibaly, who swung his foot to clear the ball and seemed surprised when Messi’s calf appeared in the way.

The Argentine was hurt badly, and you suspect he might have come off at half-time had Lorenzo Insigne not scored a penalty for Napoli moments before the break to give Barca that all-to-familiar sinking feeling.

So, he stayed out, and he led. He wasn’t the inspiration Barca were used to, but he was the one they needed: a hurrying, scurrying, scrapping captain who dragged his team over the line.

Napoli had 18 shots to Barca’s seven, 11 crosses to their two, and only 2.2 per cent less of the ball, but Messi and Barca won’t care if this result means they have finally learned again how to see out a cup tie.

They’ll need every ounce of that new-found nous if they are to halt the Bayern juggernaut in Lisbon and keep Setien in the job a little while longer.

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