Napoli and Barcelona demonstrated opposition to Russia's full-scale invasion of neighbouring Ukraine ahead of their Europa League tie on Thursday. 

Ahead of kick-off at Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, the two sides came together to hold a banner displaying the message "STOP WAR" after Russian president Vladimir Putin launched military action into Ukraine on Thursday. 

UEFA are set to move this season's Champions League final, which was due to be played in St Petersburg. 

Meanwhile, Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic have all called for Russia to be stripped of the right to host their forthcoming World Cup qualifiers. 

The knockout round play-off second leg between Napoli and Barca was finely poised following a 1-1 draw at Camp Nou last week, where Ferran Torres cancelled out Piotr Zielinski's earlier effort. 

Barcelona head coach Xavi wants his side to prove they can compete in Europe by defeating "Champion League rival" Napoli.

Barca were held to a 1-1 draw in the first leg of their Europa League knockout round play-off tie last Thursday after spurning numerous chances at Camp Nou. 

Indeed, Ferran Torres had nine shots against Luciano Spalletti's side, a tally surpassed only once by a player in a European game for the club in the last 10 seasons (Lionel Messi when he had 11 against Juventus in December 2020).

History favours Napoli heading into the second leg as they have only ever lost one home game against Spanish sides in European competition (W6 D3), and Xavi is expecting another difficult challenge.

He told reporters at Wednesday's pre-match media conference: "Barca has been great with a specific model. They've been losing it a bit and we're on the way to recovering it.

"Tomorrow [Thursday] is a litmus test to know where we are. We are in the Europa League, but Napoli are a Champions League rival.

"It will be a battle of who has the ball and possession. It's Europe and it's difficult, but it's a good test to prove that Barca can compete in Europe."

Xavi also suggested that the homegrown talent from La Masia will be key for the Blaugrana's success, both now and in future.

"We count on the academy a lot," he added. The players give a lot of commitment. We have won titles when we have had people from [our academy]. 

"That's why the talents of Gavi, Nico or [Ronald] Araujo or the older players like [Sergio] Busquets or [Gerard] Pique are important. 

"We are seeing that players who are 17 or 18 years old can make a difference."

Barca are battling it out with Atletico Madrid for the final spot in Spain's top four and a place in next season's Champions League, currently sat on 42 points while boasting a game in hand.

But Xavi believes the results for his side have not matched some of their performances this campaign.

"If you let me choose, I want to play well and win," he continued. Playing well and getting good results. 

"There have been games, with me as coach, where we played well and didn't win. 

"We are growing and this is about results. The results are matching our performances around 50 per cent of the time."

Napoli head coach Luciano Spalletti believes Barcelona still "have the same quality" without Lionel Messi, and has also drawn comparisons between Victor Osimhen and Diego Maradona.

Spalletti's side host Barca on Thursday in the second leg of their Europa League knockout round play-off, with the tie finely poised following a 1-1 draw in the first leg, which was the Blaugrana's first appearance in Europe's secondary competition since the 2003-04 season.

In those 18 years in between, Barca have lifted the Champions League four times, with Messi playing a starring role as he amassed 672 goals across 778 appearances in all competitions.

The Argentina international departed on a free transfer at the end of last season for Paris Saint-Germain amid well-documented financial complications at Camp Nou, but Spalletti does not think Xavi's new-look side are any worse off without the forward.

He told reporters at Wednesday's pre-match news conference: "Barcelona are really strong. They had Leo Messi, but they have the same quality now, with great players everywhere on the pitch. 

"Our target is to have a team that will remain in the fans' minds. We must fight. 

"Those who fight can lose, but who doesn't even fight has lost already. We need to take risks, command and show what we want to do, otherwise they'll force us to defend deep.

"It will be a tough game, we'll have to be like soldiers in a video game. A battle to conquer a position. Earn space, or you'll be shot and die."

Spalletti suggested before the first leg that Napoli and Barcelona legend Maradona would be looking down hoping his former Italian side can secure victory.

The Italian head coach referenced the Argentine great again, this time suggesting he could see similarities between his star forward Osimhen and Maradona.

"With that header against Cagliari, he proved to have a sort of animal fury which is much-needed in key moments," he added on Osimhen, who scored a late equaliser in his last outing.

"Maradona had the same thing and somebody else should have it in our team. 

"You can see Osimhen has it when he faces his opponents. He has outstanding characteristics and some extra qualities that are not easy to find in other players.

"We can become a team worthy or Maradona. He liked spectacular football and I am sure he'd like to see it tomorrow."

Cristiano Ronaldo's future with Manchester United is uncertain amid a difficult season at Old Trafford.

The 37-year-old only joined United from Juventus in August, following interest from rivals Manchester City.

But the Red Devils are well out of the title race, with Ronaldo contributing nine league goals, in a tumultuous season that has seen Ole Gunnar Solskjaer axed as manager.

TOP STORY – MAN UTD WOULD BOW TO RONALDO TRANSFER DEMANDS

Manchester United will allow five-time Ballon d'Or winner Ronaldo to depart if he demands to depart in the off-season, reports the Sunday Mirror.

The Portuguese is ready to quit the Red Devils should they miss the top four and subsequently fail to qualify for the Champions League.

The report claims that Ronaldo was expecting to transfer United into title contenders but that his presence has become a sideshow, meaning they are willing to let him go.

 

ROUND-UP

- Raphinha has caught the eye of Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Barcelona but Leeds United plan to rebuff any offers him in the off-season according to The Mirror.

- The Mirror also reports that Arsenal are in the race for Napoli's Spanish midfielder Fabian Ruiz , joining Madrid and Barcelona.

- Liverpool target Fabio Carvalho is being pursued by Manchester United too, claims the Daily Star. The Fulham teenager came close to joining the Reds in January.

- Manchester City and Raheem Sterling are set for contract talks at the end of the season but the English leaders may sell him if he does not agree to a new deal, according to the Times.

- Fiorentina are interested in Manchester United full-back Diogo Dalot but would need to convince him to lower his wages, reports La Nazione. Dalot is in line for a new deal with United according to the Star.

- Liverpool Echo reports that Everton's Jean-Philippe Gbamin could join CSKA Moscow on loan with the Russian transfer window open until February 22.

Xavi is confident Ferran Torres will come good at Barcelona despite a tricky start to life at Camp Nou.

Torres, a €55million December signing from Manchester City, rescued a 1-1 draw for Barca at home to Napoli in the Europa League, scoring from the penalty spot.

Yet that was the only one of the forward's nine attempts to hit the target on Thursday as he passed up a series of glaring opportunities, appearing to be close to tears at full-time having accounted for 1.47 of Barca's 2.03 expected goals.

In six games in all competitions for the Blaugrana so far, Torres has scored twice. But those goals have come from his only two shots on target, with a further 15 attempts failing to trouble opposition goalkeepers.

However, head coach Xavi believes this is all part of life at Barcelona, comparing Torres' circumstances to those of Luis Suarez following his 2014 move from Liverpool.

Suarez, coming off a 31-goal season at Anfield, scored just once in his first eight matches for his new club.

But the Uruguay forward finished that 2014-15 season with 25 goals, including one in the Champions League final as Barca won the treble. In 2015-16, he netted an extraordinary 59.

"Now we were making a comparison in the dressing room," Xavi said, with Suarez the last Barca player besides Lionel Messi to attempt as many as nine shots in a match (vs Inter in 2018).

"It happened to Luis Suarez. In the first few months it seemed that he could not score. The Barca shirt weighs a few more pounds.

"But because of how [Torres] has taken the penalty and the work he does for the team, I hope he can play many years at Barca.

"If he is in the area, it is because he will score goals. It's a matter of having faith and working at it. He has had goals all his life and will continue to have them. He has our absolute confidence."

Xavi – whose summary was "the feelings are very good but the result is not" – also discussed Ousmane Dembele's impact from the bench.

The coach was not enthused by a poor reaction to the introduction of the wantaway winger, but he felt a 25-minute display was ultimately appreciated by the Barca fans.

"The crowd have not listened to me, but they decide," Xavi said. "In the end, [the whistles] have been transformed into applause.

"He created things for us. That's it, we've already jeered him, it's already happened. The news is that the whistles have been transformed into applause."

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

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

The hosts were similarly dominant in the second half and got a deserved equaliser from the spot, but Napoli held out for a draw ahead of next week's second leg at Stadio Diego Armando Maradona.

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

Victor Osimhen shot at 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.

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, but they were quite 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.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was handed a first start for Barcelona as Napoli arrived at Camp Nou on Thursday.

For the Europa League play-off first leg, former Arsenal striker Aubameyang was selected along with Ferran Torres and Adama Traore in a three-man frontline.

All three recently left the Premier League behind to join Barcelona, with former Manchester City man Torres and ex-Wolves forward Traore having already started for Xavi's team.

Aubameyang was named to start a first-team game at club level for the first time since he lined up for Arsenal against Manchester United on December 2.

He fell out of favour at Arsenal as his relationship with manager Mikel Arteta disintegrated, leading to the new start in Spain.

Head coach Xavi said of the Gabon striker on Wednesday: "I am very happy with him. He is very professional and very positive within the group."

Sergio Busquets and Gavi were rested to the bench as head coach Xavi made use of his squad, while there was a notable presence in the Napoli side as Victor Osimhen was passed fit.

The Nigeria striker did not train on Monday due to a minor knee problem but was given the green light to line up for Luciano Spalletti's team.

This was a clash of two of Diego Maradona's former clubs, who were vying for a place in the Europa League last-16 stage.

The only previous meeting between the teams in a major European competition occurred in the last 16 of the 2019-20 Champions League, when Barcelona won 4-2 on aggregate after a 3-1 win at Camp Nou.

Luciano Spalletti believes Diego Maradona will be looking down on his two former teams and hoping Napoli beat Barcelona on Thursday.

In the pick of the Europa League knockout round play-off ties, the Partenopei face Barca home and away over the next week.

The Blaugrana dropped into UEFA's secondary competition for the first time since 2003-04 following their elimination from the Champions League in a tough start to the season.

The Catalan side have recovered a little momentum under Xavi, however, and present a major test for Spalletti's Napoli, who are third in Serie A.

But this fixture – only previously played in the last 16 of the 2019-20 Champions League – will always be associated far more with Maradona than any modern star.

The Argentina great moved to Napoli after two years with Barca in the 1980s, enjoying the best spell of his career over seven seasons in Italy.

Twice a league champion with Napoli, Spalletti suggested on the eve of the match the late Maradona would favour his club.

Asked about injury issues in both camps, the Napoli coach said: "I don't think there will be a disadvantage for the absence of a player.

"The two squads are so well equipped that the absence of one player and the presence of another does not make a difference.

"There would be one that could make a difference, but he will watch this game from heaven.

"I am talking about Maradona, who will initially try to be 'good', but then I am convinced he will take a position and cheer for Napoli."

Fabian Ruiz is flattered to be linked with a move to Barcelona and Real Madrid but insists he is happy at Napoli. 

Spain international Fabian will be out of contract at Stadio Diego Armando Maradona at the end of next season. 

It was this week reported that talks over a renewal for the midfielder had broken down and Napoli would be forced to listen to offers for him, with Barca and Madrid the player's favoured potential destinations.

Asked about the situation ahead of Napoli's Europa League play-off meeting with Barca at Camp Nou on Thursday, Fabian admitted it was nice to hear of such clubs being interested in him. 

He told a news conference: "It's always nice to see yourself linked with great clubs, especially the Spanish ones. 

"However, I have another year on my contract. I'm happy at Napoli and concentrated on [Thursday's] match." 

Barca are contesting the secondary European competition for the first time since 2003-04, when they were eliminated in the last 16 of the UEFA Cup by Celtic. 

A run of 191 straight continental games in the Champions League was ended by their group-stage exit and quickly put pressure on head coach Xavi, who was in the starting line-up for both legs of the Blaugrana's loss to Celtic. 

However, Napoli boss Luciano Spalletti has no doubt Xavi will prove to be a success in the dugout, having cut his teeth with a successful spell at Al Sadd. 

"Xavi was already a real football connoisseur as a player, so naturally he will be as a coach too," said Spalletti. 

"They also brought in more unpredictable players in January who can change a game by themselves." 

The only previous meeting between the two teams in a major European competition occurred in the last 16 of the 2019-20 Champions League, when Barca won 4-2 on aggregate after a 3-1 win at Camp Nou. 

Xavi does not believe Barcelona are favourites to win the Europa League as they prepare to face Napoli in a play-off first leg on Thursday.

The Blaugrana's run of 17 successive years competing in the knockout rounds of the Champions League came to a halt when they finished third behind Bayern Munich and Benfica in Group E.

Barca will do battle with Serie A side Napoli for a place in the round of 16 in their first experience of playing in Europe's secondary club competition in its current guise.

Head coach Xavi spoke of his anger over the Catalan giants' eimination from the Champions League, but does not feel they ought to be expected to lift the Europa League.

He told reporters on Wednesday: "I wouldn't say we are favourites. We're going for the two titles, but we're up against a difficult opponent.

"Sevilla have much more experience than us in this competition. I see us as candidates, not favourites, but in the tie."

Napoli are third in Serie A after holding champions Inter to a 1-1 draw on Saturday.

Xavi knows Barca face a big challenge as they attempt to advance at the expense of Luciano Spalletti's side.

"We could perfectly see this tie in the Champions League. They are a very good team," he said.

"Napoli are a really compact team with a very experienced coach. They work well in moving the ball and pressing high up the pitch.

"They're going to make it difficult for us, they want the ball. They also defend well in low blocks and have top-class players."

Xavi has found it painful to see Champions League matches knowing Barca are out of the competition, but considers the Europa League as a chance to add a new trophy to the club's haul.

He added: "It's one more motivation to win a title that we don't have. It makes me very angry to listen to the music of the Champions League and not be there."

The Barca boss revealed he could give Sergio Busquets a rest and hinted he may be ready to unleash Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from the start.

He said of the Gabon striker: "Now he is 100 per cent and we will see him play safely. He is a player capable of playing space, going down to receive and unload.

"I am very happy with him. He is very professional and very positive within the group."

Inter assistant Massimiliano Farris praised his team's mentality and fitness levels after they came from behind to secure a 1-1 draw at title rivals Napoli.

Nerazzurri coach Simone Inzaghi served a touchline ban in Naples after both he and defender Alessandro Bastoni were shown red cards in the aftermath of the defending champions' 2-1 derby defeat to Milan last week.

Lorenzo Insigne's first-half penalty gave Napoli a deserved half-time lead and left Inter staring at consecutive defeats to their main Scudetto rivals, but Edin Dzeko's equalising goal ensured the visitors escaped Naples with a point.

And Farris was pleased with how they responded to going behind.

"The second-half performance says a great deal about the quality of this squad," he told DAZN in the aftermath of the stalemate.

"We had some regrets at half-time, but in the second half [we] showed a great reaction and mental strength in a fiery atmosphere. 

"We smothered Napoli’s enthusiasm and we could've won it at the end, but we're content with a point here."

Inter managed just three shots worth a mere 0.17 combined expected goals before the break, but an improved second half display ensured the Nerazzurri earned a valuable draw, and they have now won 17 points from losing positions in Serie A this season, more than any other team in the division.

Farris, who accompanied Inzaghi during his five-year stint as Lazio boss before joining him at San Siro, put Inter's ability to rescue points from difficult situations down to their fitness levels.

"Napoli changed tactics to a [back] five and that was a sign of them backing off, [but] we still had fuel in the tank, despite coming off the derby and a Coppa Italia match, whereas Napoli had all week to prepare for this game," he said.

"The team was controlling the situation well [in the second half]. It's all a positive sign."

Despite seeing their 440-minute stretch without conceding an away goal in Serie A come to an end, Inter maintained their one-point lead over Luciano Spalletti's Napoli at the Serie A summit with the draw, although cross-city rivals Milan could leapfrog the Nerazzurri by beating Sampdoria on Sunday.

Inter held on to top spot in Serie A after coming from behind to claim a 1-1 draw at second-placed Napoli on Saturday.

Lorenzo Insigne gave the hosts the lead from the penalty spot after just seven minutes at Stadio Diego Armando Maradona.

But the reigning champions equalised inside a minute in the second half as Edin Dzeko fired in only his third league goal since October.

Although Napoli looked the more likely to find a winner, they missed the opportunity to displace their opponents at the summit.

Inter had kept a clean sheet in each of their previous four away games in Serie A, but they were breached early on when Insigne confidently swept home from 12 yards after the VAR ruled Stefan de Vrij had fouled Victor Osimhen.

Although forced into an early change as Matteo Politano limped off injured, Napoli continued to carry the greater threat going forward.

Piotr Zielinski hit the post from distance, while Osimhen and Insigne also went close to doubling the lead.

Aiming to avoid suffering back-to-back league defeats for the first time since March 2020 following last weekend's Derby della Madonnina reverse against Milan, Inter looked to respond with Dzeko heading straight at David Ospina from close range.

And there was no denying Inter's number nine just after the restart. He slammed in off the underside of the crossbar after an initial cross ricocheted kindly into his path.

Napoli went close to regaining the lead as Samir Handanovic produced smart reflexes to deny Osimhen and Eljif Elmas, but the sides could not be separated as the title race remains too close to call.

Declan Rice has long since been linked with a move to Manchester United and the Red Devils' pursuit is reportedly set to step up a notch.

England midfielder Rice is a man seemingly in demand, even though suitors will likely have to stump up a minimum of £100million to land him.

With Manchester City and Chelsea also said to be interested, United are aiming to be at the front of the queue for his signature.

TOP STORY – RICE A MAN IN DEMAND

Manchester United are likely to wait until a permanent manager is in place to make their moves in the market, with Ralf Rangnick remaining in charge on a temporary basis until the end of the campaign.

But the Mirror reports that Rice remains high on their list of priorities with United aiming to overhaul their midfield ahead of next season.

Leeds United's Kalvin Phillips and RB Leipzig's Amadou Haidara are apparently also high on United's shortlist of targets.

ROUND-UP

- The Red Devils are set to be busy in the close-season with Barcelona's highly rated centre-back Ronald Araujo on their radar, according to the Mirror. The defender, who is entering the final 18 months of his contract, is thought to be attracting interest from Manchester City too.

- Aston Villa right-back Matty Cash has emerged as a transfer target for LaLiga giants Atletico Madrid, according to Fabrizio Romano. Atleti allowed Kieran Trippier to join Newcastle United in January.

- The Sun reported that Arsenal are set to complete a triple swoop for Everton's Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Alexander Isak of Real Sociedad and Wolves' Ruben Neves in the next transfer window.

- Lille centre-back Sven Botman is still high on Newcastle United's radar despite a deal not being able to be struck during the last window, says the Athletic.

- Victor Osimhen remains a top target for Tottenham, writes Football Insider. Spurs will need to stump up around £60m to land the Napoli striker.

Dani Alves is the new signing to miss out on Barcelona's Europa League squad after the club confirmed his omission on Wednesday.

The Brazilian, who rejoined the Blaugrana in November, was finally registered for LaLiga duty at the start of January but will not feature for the club in their European campaign.

Alves was joined at the club by fellow new arrivals Ferran Torres, Adama Traore and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in January, but only three would be permitted to be included in the Europa League squad.

UEFA regulations prohibit any more than three new additions to European squads after the January transfer window.

As such, Barca had more new signings than free spaces, with 38-year-old Alves ultimately the one left out.

Ousmane Dembele has been included, however, despite his contract stand-off seeing tensions rise at the club over the past few weeks.

President Joan Laporta openly suggested the situation might make it "more difficult" for Dembele to feature, though he did leave that up to the discretion of head coach Xavi.

Like Alves, young forwards Ez Abde and Ferran Jutgla were left out of the selection despite breaking into the first-team squad – neither were registered with UEFA at the start of the season, nor do either qualify as a homegrown Barca player, therefore would have been competing with the new signings for spaces in the squad.

Barca face Napoli in their Europa League knockout play-off, hosting them on February 17 before going to Naples a week later.

Lorenzo Insigne moved alongside Diego Maradona on Napoli's all-time list of leading goalscorers after hitting his 115th goal for the Serie A club.

The Italy international converted a penalty early in the second half of Sunday's 4-1 derby win against Salernitana.

That meant he joined Maradona in a tie for third place in the Napoli record books.

Dries Mertens heads that list and slotted a penalty just before half-time to give Napoli a 2-1 lead, his 144th goal for the club.

Belgium international Mertens stepped aside to allow Insigne to take responsibility for the second spot-kick in the 53rd minute.

Insigne had come on as a substitute for the start of the second half, and Mertens said: "I left the second penalty to Lorenzo because it was important to him."

Writing on Instagram after the match, Insigne expressed his delight at the victory.

He will leave at the end of the season to join Toronto FC, but the 30-year-old insisted he would always hold the club dear.

"The derbies are not played… they are won…. We continue like this until the end," Insigne wrote. "Always and forever FORZA NAPOLI."

Insigne is now six goals behind second-placed Marek Hamsik on the Napoli goalscoring list.

The late Argentina legend Maradona remains the greatest and most revered player in Napoli's history, having joined from Barcelona in 1984 and spent seven years in Naples.

He helped Napoli win league titles in 1986-87 and 1989-90 – the only Serie A championships the club have won – and his death in November sparked an outpouring of grief in the city.

Sunday's goal was Insigne's sixth goal of the season across all competitions, with Napoli's win moving them just four points behind Serie A leaders Inter.

Mertens believes Napoli can still push Inter hard for the title, saying on the club's website: "We must continue like this and look only at us. The championship is still long and we can be protagonists."

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.