Champions League: Napoli draw with Barca, Porto beat Arsenal

Victor Osimhen was described as “a huge player” after marking his return for Napoli with a goal that gave the Italian champions a 1-1 draw with Barcelona and hope that a dreadful season might have reached a turning point.

Nigeria forward Osimhen rolled home the leveller with 15 minutes left of the first leg of their Champions League last 16 tie at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, in his first match since returning from the Africa Cup of Nations.

The 25-year-old equalised Robert Lewandowski’s 60th-minute opener, which seemed likely to be the decisive goal as Barca were for long periods the better team, with Napoli’s first and only shot on target.

“He’s a huge player for us,” said Napoli skipper Giovanni Di Lorenzo to Amazon Prime Video.

“He’s come back with the right attitude. We knew he would though as he’s a great player and professional. He’ll give us a hand in the matches to come.”

Osimhen had last played for Napoli in a 2-0 defeat at Roma just before Christmas, when he was one of two players from his team to be sent off.

His ninth club goal of the season came at a crucial time, not just in the match but in Napoli’s campaign as they play under their third manager of the season in Francesco Calzona, their league title defence up in flames.

Calzona had less than 48 hours to prepare for his first match in charge after replacing Walter Mazzarri on Monday night, and Osimhen gave Napoli a chance of progressing despite a disjointed performance by his team.

Napoli head into next month’s second leg in the Catalan capital knowing that with Osimhen in the team there is always a chance of a goal regardless of the overall team display.

“It’s a good starting point,” added Di Lorenzo.

“We know that we need to do more but we’ve taken a step forward and now we have a chance in the return leg. It’s all to play for.”

Osimhen saves Napoli

For Barca meanwhile it was the latest misstep of a complicated campaign at the end of which coach Xavi will leave, assuming president Joan Laporta doesn’t sack the coach before then.

The away side had the better chances but couldn’t put Napoli away and could yet pay for their wastefulness.

“We’re a little disappointed with the result because we could have come out with a win,” said Ronald Araujo to Movistar.

“Napoli had a lot of the ball in the last 15 minutes but they barely created a chance. The Champions League is like that.”

Barca showed why they were pre-match favourites in the opening exchanges, dominating the ball and creating shooting opportunities which dulled an initially raucous crowd.

Teen sensation Lamine Yamal come close to becoming the Champions League’s youngest ever scorer when his ninth-minute effort was well-saved by Alex Meret.

In the 23rd minute, the away side twice went close to taking the lead, Lewandowski’s flicked finish kept out by Meret who then tipped away Ilkay Gundogan’s long-range rocket.

From that point on Napoli’s presence in the game grew, but the hosts failed to let off a single effort on goal before the break despite pushing their opponents on back.

Gundogan forced another smart save from Meret shortly after the restart after being put through by Yamal before blasting over another presentable chance.

Barca had the lead their performance deserved on the hour when Lewandowski collected Pedri’s pass and drilled a perfect low finish past Meret.

With the away side looking like they would push home their advantage, Osimhen pounced as Inigo Martinez slipped on the edge of the area to level the scores and transform the atmosphere in the stadium.

Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and substitute Giovanni Simeone both had efforts off target with the home side’s tails up, but it was Barca who went inches away from snatching a late win.

Gundogan’s frustrating night in front of goal continued deep into stoppage time as his low effort flew just wide.

Galeno stuns timid Arsenal with late Porto winner

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta bemoaned his team’s lack of cutting edge as Galeno’s sublime stoppage-time goal earned Porto a 1-0 win in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie on Wednesday.

Appearing in a first knockout match in Europe’s premier club competition for seven years, Arsenal struggled to break down an organised Porto defence before Galeno’s stroke of brilliance in the 94th minute.

The defeat ended Arsenal’s eight-game unbeaten run against Portuguese opposition and the Gunners with plenty of work to do in the return leg in London on March 12.

“We lacked threat. We lacked aggression, especially when we had the ball in the final third,” Arteta told TNT Sports. “So we will tweak a few things to attack better. We can do better.”

Arsenal last made it to the Champions League quarter-finals in 2010, when they beat Porto in the last 16, but it is the Portuguese club who now have the upper hand. 

“I think it’s a team that’s very well-organised defensively and they break your rhythm all the time,” said Arteta.

“We want to be in the quarter-finals, you have to beat your opponent and this is what we have to do at the Emirates.”

Arsenal failed to register a single shot on target as their recent goal spree came to a shuddering halt.

“When it’s 0-0, you look up at the clock and it’s 93 minutes gone, if you aren’t going to win the game then don’t lose it,” said Arsenal midfielder Declan Rice.

“It’s a real kick in the teeth because we’ve conceded late but we know what to do. We’re not going to let our heads drop.”

Arteta stuck with the same starting line-up for the third game in succession following his team’s 5-0 demolition of Burnley at the weekend.

Porto defender Pepe, who turns 41 next week and is the oldest outfield player in Champions League history, made his 119th appearance in the competition. 

By comparison, Arsenal’s starters had combined for a total of 104 before kick-off at the Estadio do Dragao.

While short on Champions League experience, Arteta has said his squad have the belief they can mix it with Europe’s best.

Flee-flowing attack stalls 

The Gunners have started 2024 with five successive wins in the Premier League, scoring 21 goals in those games, and are firmly in the race for a first title in two decades. 

As well as reigning supreme in England for the first time since 2004, the north Londoners are convinced they can also conquer Europe, spurred on further by the prospect of a Wembley final.

Arsenal have never won the Champions League — losing their only final appearance against Barcelona in 2006.

Porto, European champions in 1987 and 2004, are a disappointing third in Portugal this term, but frustrated Arsenal throughout. 

They were happy to cede possession and allow Arsenal to dictate the tempo in the first half, but it was the hosts who created the best chance. 

Francisco Conceicao darted in from the right and slid over a cross that looped off a sliding Gabriel, with Galeno rifling against the far post and then steering the rebound wide after the ball came right back to him.

William Saliba and Kai Havertz headed wide at corners either side of a Nico Gonzalez drive that sailed over in a physical opening 45 minutes.

Leandro Trossard, deployed again as the leader of the attack alongside Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli, lashed over on the volley from Rice’s driven corner early in the second half.

Arteta made his lone change with a quarter of an hour left, replacing Trossard with Jorginho, but Arsenal’s lack of a prolific striker was exposed and they were ultimately undone by a moment of magic from Galeno.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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Can Cody Gakpo spark a Liverpool turnaround?

Weakened by injuries and plagued by inconsistent form, Liverpool has endured an incredibly challenging Premier League season. With eight wins, four draws and five losses, Jurgen Klopp’s Reds have looked well off the pace for Champions League qualification and are currently outside the top four; they will need a stunning turnaround to have any chance of contending for the title. 

To remedy matters, Liverpool acted swiftly in the January transfer window, securing the signature of Cody Gakpo, the highly sought-after Dutch forward. The 23-year-old, who scored three goals for the Netherlands at the World Cup, joined the Merseyside club from PSV Eindhoven for a reported initial fee of 42 million euros. Gakpo bagged 55 goals and supplied 50 assists in 159 appearances for PSV, which included a red-hot streak of nine goals and 12 assists in 14 Eredivisie games before the World Cup break.

Multipronged strategy

Liverpool’s move, in theory, did three things: it addressed an immediate need, providing attacking reinforcement for a side that has lost Luis Diaz to a knee injury and Diogo Jota to a calf problem; it prevented a direct rival from strengthening, for British media reports said Manchester United was also chasing Gakpo; it also future-proofed the forward line, ensuring a replacement has the time to be ready before Mohamed Salah (30) and Roberto Firmino (31) need replacing. 

“There is a lot to like about Cody,” Klopp told the club’s official website, explaining the thought process behind the signing. “He is still only 23 but he already has a lot of experience. He was the captain of PSV, he was the player of the year in Holland last season and, as a lot of people have just seen, he also had a great World Cup. 

“It is clear that he is already a really, really good player, but his age also means he has the potential to become even better. Offensively, he is very versatile and, on top of this, we know he is a smart footballer and a smart person, so we are really excited to be able to work with him.”

Slippery operator: Gakpo’s combination of power, speed and technique make him a difficult man to contain.

While the Gakpo move makes eminent sense on paper, it isn’t without risk. For one thing, it remains to be seen whether he can replicate the success he has had in the Netherlands in a significantly stronger, more physically intense league. There is also the knock-on effect his purchase could have on Liverpool’s transfer activity. Klopp will likely have less to spend in January, not ideal given that the midfield still needs strengthening.  

“I would say in principle it’s like this for all people in the world: the money you spend has an impact on the money you can spend [in the future],” Klopp said. “We know what we want to do and we will see if we can do it. [But] I don’t want to disappoint anybody, we signed an outstanding player and the next thing you read is, ‘Who next?’ We cannot play like Monopoly.”

However Liverpool has a history of smart market moves and it is possible for the recruitment department to find value in a midfield buy. But even accounting for this, the Gakpo transfer has to work if the club has to have its best shot at climbing up a crowded league table.

And given the stakes involved — the financial benefit of qualifying for the Champions League is central to Liverpool’s business model and its ability to participate in the summer transfer window — the club will hope Gakpo can hit the ground running.

Can he succeed?

So, what are the chances of the 23-year-old succeeding in England? He is one of the rarer profiles in football: a ‘big-body’ wide forward, standing well over six feet tall. That, in itself, offers his team a point of difference. 

Young giant: Cody Gakpo first caught the eye in the Eredivisie, the Netherlands top flight, before producing a star-making performance in the World Cup.

Young giant: Cody Gakpo first caught the eye in the Eredivisie, the Netherlands top flight, before producing a star-making performance in the World Cup.

He has a powerful burst, with enough pace to make a back-line anxious. Cutting in from the left to curl his finish to the keeper’s far post is his signature move, something he picked up from Thierry Henry, one of his idols. “I watched clips of him and tried to learn something from him: the way he comes in from the left and shoots with his right,” Gakpo said. “I tried to copy him a bit.” But he can go past his rival full-back on the outside as well, which makes him even more potent.

He has good feet for a big man: his dribbling isn’t as spectacular as, say, Antony’s, but it’s efficient. He frequently creates separation, finding the space to shoot, cross or combine with his teammates. Gakpo can function as an outlet and a transitional threat, but can also unlock low-blocks in settled play with one-touch passes and penetrating runs. 

What Gakpo is truly elite at is ball-striking, off both feet. This makes him an excellent crosser and long-passer; more to the point, it makes him a dangerous goal threat even from less than optimal positions. It will be interesting to watch whether his physicality translates from Dutch to English — he bullied defenders in the Eredivisie — but it’s almost certain that his ball-striking will.

Driven to improve

The defensive side of his game has drawn criticism in the past, especially his pressing intensity. But Klopp is unlikely to have made a long-term decision without being sure that Gakpo will give him what he wants without the ball. The Dutch international is also driven to improve: in addition to training, he works with Tactalyse, a company which offers individual tactical coaching, with an emphasis on the small details. “Cody wanted to raise the bar and be more efficient,” Loran Vrielink, founder of Tactalyse, told BBC Sport. “He invests in himself.”

Gakpo’s versatility makes him the ideal multifunctional Klopp player, one who can essay several roles in a team which plays with fluidity within a compact structure. “The position he played most often is on the left but he can play different positions,” said Klopp. “He can play all four positions up front. Whatever you play, if you play a 4-2-3-1 he can play all four positions, in a 4-3-3 he can be the winger, if you play 4-4-2 he can play the wing and the striker positions.”

Gakpo is yet to kick a ball for Liverpool, but what he does over the rest of the season will have a significant impact on the club’s fortunes. Louis van Gaal, the Netherlands coach, said the young man has “everything it takes to become a star” and the potential to make a difference at the highest level. Liverpool fans will hope that those words come true over the next few months.

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