Troubled Barca face European reality check on road to recovery

Barca will play in Europe's second-tier tournament for the first time since losing to Celtic at the last-16 stage in March 2004

Joan Laporta claimed Barcelona are "back as big players" but Thursday will mark another checkpoint in the club's decline as they face Napoli in the knock-out stage of the Europa League.

After failing to make it out of their Champions League group, Barca will play in Europe's second-tier tournament for the first time since losing to Celtic at the last-16 stage in March 2004.

Laporta was in the opening season of his first spell as president that year and while Barcelona's fortunes would soon improve exponentially as Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi got to work, nobody can be optimistic a similar transformation is close now.

Barcelona's players were likely watching on television on Tuesday as Messi played -- and missed a penalty -- for Paris Saint-Germain against Real Madrid in Paris, the kind of heavyweight European tie to which the Catalans would be normally more accustomed.

There are some positive signs that head coach Xavi Hernandez is steering the team in the right direction, even if erratic results and performances are a reminder of the work still to be done.

Barca defeated Atletico Madrid 4-2 earlier this month in one of the most encouraging displays under Xavi, but a 2-2 draw away at city rivals Espanyol last weekend saw doubts resurface ahead of the visit of Napoli to the Camp Nou.

The youthful Barca side's attempt to rebuild their reputation in the Europa League will come under a severe examination against opponents who sit third in Serie A and have conceded only 17 goals in 25 matches.

"Napoli are a Champions League-level opponent, one of the most difficult teams we could have drawn," said Xavi.

Luciano Spalletti's side are fighting to win their third Serie A title -- after Diego Maradona left Barcelona and inspired Napoli to become champions in 1987 and 1990. 

"The game will be a tribute to Maradona," said Xavi.

'Big players'

Europa League success is now a priority for Barcelona, something that would have been unthinkable until recently for a club who won the Champions League three times in seven years midway through the last decade.

But the reality is that Barca managed just two goals in six Champions League group matches, sit 15 points behind Real Madrid in La Liga and lost in the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey last month.

There are just three points separating the four teams battling for fourth place in La Liga and the final Champions League place -– Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Real Sociedad and Villarreal.

Barcelona know that if they can make it to the Europa League final in Seville in May, there will be an alternative route to Champions League qualification, so crucial to Laporta's hopes of financial recovery.

To earn the same prize money as for reaching the Champions League last 16, Xavi's team are likely to have to win the Europa League, with around 60 million euros available to the champions.

It would be a welcome financial injection, given Barcelona's total debts amount to more than a billion euros, and early vindication of Xavi's project, to which Laporta wants to add a stellar signing in the summer such as Borussia Dortmund's prolific young striker Erling Haaland.

"We're definitely recovering our status," said a bullish Laporta last month. 

"Everybody in the world should get ready, as we are back as big players in the market."

Even if they overcome Napoli, there are plenty of teams that could stand in Barca's way, not least the two Seville teams, Sevilla and Real Betis, who both sit above Barcelona in La Liga.

Haaland's Dortmund, Atlanta, West Ham and Porto are other strong contenders.