UCL Draw: Will ‘force of nature’ Osimhen still be in situ when Napoli take on Barcelona?

UCL Draw: Will ‘force of nature’ Osimhen still be in situ when Napoli take on Barcelona?

Despite Victor Osimhen nearing a contract renewal at Napoli, the January window could throw a spanner in the works to the Partenopei’s Champions League Round of 16 prospects against Barcelona.

The last time Victor Osimhen faced Barcelona, he got a telling-off by Luciano Spalletti. The Tuscan tactician was irked by the Napoli centre-forward’s hasty propensity to make runs behind the Blaugrana defence, with the late timing of his teammates’ passes leading to several offside calls. 

Osimhen was caught offside three times, a statistic not accounting for the number of occasions the ball was not released to the Nigeria international. There were five offsides at Spotify Camp Nou that night, with the Super Eagles forward accruing more than everyone on both sides combined.

The stakes are undoubtedly higher when Napoli and Barcelona face off in the Champions League Round of 16 in 2024, circa two years after the Europa League knockout round playoff tie. 

Victor Osimhen

Victor Osimhen frustrated then-Napoli boss Luciano Spalletti when Napoli faced Barcelona in Europe in February 2022 (Credit: IMAGO)

Both clubs go into next year’s tie as defending champions of their respective leagues, even if the current standings in Serie A and LaLiga point to an unsuccessful title defence. 

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Napoli lost the man who delivered the club’s first Scudetto in 33 years, and his replacement, Rudi Garcia, was in situ for five months before Aurelio De Laurentiis turned to Walter Mazzarri to steady a ship that was going off course under the Frenchman.

The defending Spanish champions have also come under fire in 2023-24 under club legend Xavi Hernandez, as their rearguard has not been the nigh-on impassable unit from last season, and their first-choice and currently sidelined goalkeeper, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, unable to match the shot-stopping heights of 2022-23

With Xavi coming under increasing pressure in Catalonia, it remains to be seen if the 2010 World Cup winner remains in charge in two months. A lot can change before the first encounter in Naples, making the outcome of arguably the most fascinating tie of Monday’s Champions League draw uncertain.

Napoli vs Barcelona

Xavi’s Barcelona got the better of Napoli the last time both teams competed in Europe (Credit: IMAGO/AFLOSPORT)

Unless Mazzarri fails badly on his return to the Maradona, there is a guarantee of little or no change in Naples. Or is there, with the Nigerian’s future still in doubt?

Osimhen, undoubtedly not the player he was when these sides last met, is happy and willing these days to be the club’s main match-winner. The 24-year-old ascended to the pinnacle of African football on December 11 when he ended Nigeria’s 24-year wait to produce the continent’s best player, and he is far from done.

However, one of the leaders of this Partenopei iteration may not even be at the Maradona by the time the Champions League knockout rounds begin. This eventuality may be considered a long shot, but rumours keep circulating despite the striker nearing a contract renewal in Naples that includes a big-budget release clause.

Chelsea have been mooted as a possible destination, while Premier League-contending Arsenal are rumoured to be keeping tabs on the striker. Despite the financial lure of playing in England’s top flight, a mid-season switch to Stamford Bridge appears ill-advised due to the West London side’s on-field muddled approach and puzzling transfer strategy.

Osimhen’s acceptance speech after receiving the African Footballer of the Year award paid homage to Blues icon Didier Drogba, and Mikel John Obi did not stop short of recommending a switch to the two-time European champions when the striker made a guest appearance on the Obi One Podcast in November 2023. 

The Napoli star did reiterate his Premier League dream but debunked rumours of allegiance to the West London club in the same episode. While Chelsea may want Osimhen in January, the club’s instability and the revolving door of arrivals and departures mean a move should not be prioritised by last season’s Capocannoniere.

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The motivation to outdo Barcelona the second time around should logically outweigh a mid-season transfer to a club outside Europe’s premier club competition and one unlikely to make it to next season’s revamped continental tournament.

Drawing a historical heavyweight in Europe like the Blaugrana could terrify some, but it should inspire a Napoli side keen to match their best-ever continental showing and possibly make it to the Champions League semis for the first time in the club’s history. Those prospects improve with Osimhen in the side.

If anyone doubted the Nigerian’s commitment to the cause, Saturday’s decisive performance against relegation-threatened Cagliari underscored the 24-year-old’s importance to whatever the Partenopei achieve this season. 

Victor Osimhen

Despite feeding off scraps for much of the evening, Victor Osimhen was ultimately decisive against Cagliari (Credit: IMAGO/LaPresse)

The Napoli striker scored an unmistakable header after rising above the Rossoblu defence to open the scoring and brilliantly set up Khvicha Kvaratskhelia for the winning goal, accentuating his decisive qualities despite enduring a frustrating outing amid the sub-optimal service from teammates. 

Corriere dello Sport extolled the centre-forward, praising the ‘force of nature’ for his match-deciding performance at the Maradona as the Partenopei recorded only their third home league victory of the season and a first since September.

The hope in Naples is such that the Nigerian’s match-winning performance proves to be the fillip to turn the tide long before hosting Barcelona on February 21, 2024. If all goes well for Osimhen at the Africa Cup of Nations, he could return to the club as a continental champion, even if supporters of the Super Eagles think that ending improbable.

The worst of the foreseeable outcomes would see Osimhen depart Napoli in January, leaving without a proper goodbye and missing out on another shot at the Blaugrana.

In a season expected to result in an unsuccessful title defence, going into the Barca tie without the Super Eagles centre-forward weakens the Partenopei’s prospects. Napoli need him to outdo Xavi’s men, and they need him to eclipse Champions League expectations.

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