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Europa League

Napoli and Barcelona played to a 1-1 draw in the first leg

In the first leg of their Europa League knockout round play-off, Ferran Torres scored a second-half penalty to salvage a 1-1 draw for wasteful Barcelona against Napoli.

Barca was competing in Europe’s secondary competition for the first time since 2003-04.

And enjoyed the better of the game, but Xavi’s men could not turn their superiority into a win.

Napoli took the lead through Piotr Zielinski, as Barca went close through Torres, Pedri and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, making his first start since joining Arsenal.

The hosts were similarly dominant in the second half and got a deserved equaliser from the spot.

Still, Napoli held out for a draw ahead of next week’s second leg at Stadio Diego Armando Maradona.

A bright start saw Barca close several times, with Nico Gonzalez testing Alex Meret and Aubameyang shaving outside the post.

Victor Osimhen shot Marc-Andre ter Stegen from a tight angle soon after on the break, but Barca continued to probe, with Torres spurning a glorious chance when shooting wide with only Meret to beat in the 28th minute.

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Napoli capitalised with the next attack, Zielinski smashing at Ter Stegen before burying the rebound to round off an excellent move.

Barca’s level dipped initially after the break. Still, they were pretty literally handed a lifeline just before the hour as Adama Traore’s cross clipped Juan Jesus’ hand, and Torres converted the spot-kick after the VAR’s intervention.

Barca piled the pressure on towards the end, but Torres blazed over from 12 yards, and Luuk de Jong saw an overhead kick go agonisingly wide.

What does it mean? Optimistic signs but still much to work on for new-look Barca.

Xavi lined up with a front three made up entirely of players brought in during the January transfer window. 

For much of the game, they looked every inch an attack, not used to playing with each other.

Torres and Aubameyang are often on different wavelengths, and Traore is generally in a world of his own.

But it was not all bad and, of course, the best way to build a relationship is to play together. So Xavi will hope to see more progress next time.

Koulibaly holds firm.

Of course, Barca’s finishing helped Napoli avoid defeat here, but Kalidou Koulibaly’s performance deserves recognition.

He was an imperious presence at the back for the visitors, routinely popping up with essential clearances.

He cleared the danger 11 times, at least five more than anyone else, and won eight of his ten duels.

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Torres is the hero and the villain.

He scored the penalty that prevented defeat, but generally, Torres was disappointing.

Torres was undoubtedly a threat, but he squandered at least three chances he arguably should have buried – and it was not as if Meret made a save for any of them. Instead, he missed the target entirely.

What’s next for Barcelona and Napoli?

These two do it all over again in Naples in a week. Before that, Barca go to Valencia in LaLiga and Napoli travel to Cagliari.

Likewise, for more football news like this, click here.

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