After months of waiting, we've finally reached the round of 32 in the Europa League, the first stage of the knockout rounds. It's not the glory of the Champions League, but it's better than sitting and watching European play at home. Any chance at another trophy is always nice, and it's almost certain that Rafa would like a chance to win the Europa League a second year in a row after taking the title last season with Chelsea.
Ugly Ducklings Or Graceful Fowl?
Swansea will be a very different team than anything Napoli face in Italy, and could pose an interesting challenge. While they are without the manager that got them there after Michael Laudrup was fired (via email, apparently), they still have a good side that Napoli won't be able to simply look past if they want to advance to the next knockout round.
While defender-turned-manager Garry Monk hasn't had Swansea playing the same attractive football that established Swansea in England's top division, he also hasn't had a full healthy squad since taking over two weeks ago. Spanish star Michu has been out since December with an ankle injury, and Jonjo Shelvey and Alejandro Pozuelo, two new players this season who had made positive impacts, have missed the last few weeks as well. Shelvey and Pozuelo might be available for tomorrow's match, but Michu has been ruled out again after a setback in his recovery.
Expect Swansea to take a fairly direct approach to the match. Of late, they've been using Jonathan de Guzman as their primary playmaker from a midfield pivot, directed to get the ball to one of Wayne Routledge or Pablo Hernandez. Then Swansea uses their legs to penetrate in to the final third from there and try to move the ball around in the box, particularly trying to feet Wilifred Bony, who's the best finisher on the squad.
It's a tactic that has the potential to give Napoli fits, especially if Christain Maggio and Miguel Britos aren't in top form. Raul Albiol's style of play should let him deal with it well, but he can only be in so many places at once. Napoli will have to do their best to keep Swansea on the back foot to keep from getting bitten by Swansea's methods.
Not The Champions League, But Better Than Nothing
While the squad is obviously disappointed to have fallen out of the Champions League, they seem to be taking the opportunity to go far in Europa with both hands given some of the interviews going around in the last couple of weeks. I'm sure the final being in Turin doesn't hurt any, not to mention an outside chance of facing Juventus there.
The squad is in fairly good shape, with Gonzalo Higuain and Pepe Reina both being deemed healthy enough to travel with the squad to Wales. It's likely that Higuain starts, though given the strong play of Rafael when the Brazilian has been called upon means that he could start rather than risk yet another injury aggravation to Reina. Federico Fernandez is suspended due to yellow card accumulation during the group stage of the Champions League.
Unfortunately, Jorginho is unavailable as he was not registered for this stage of the competition. A combination of UEFA squad rules and poor defensive depth meant that adding Faouzi Ghoulam, Henrique Buss, and Anthony Reveillere to the squad was more important than another midfielder. Depending on how things wind up later on, Jorginho can still be added later in the competition.
Swansea City: Tremmel; Rangel, Chico, Williams, Davies; De Guzman, Britton; Hernandez, Routledge, Dyer; Bony
Napoli: Rafael; Maggio, Britos, Albiol, Ghoulam; Inler, Behrami; Callejon, Hamsik, Insigne; Higuain
At a glance
Swansea: Tenth in EPL, 7W, 7D, 12L; Qualified through second-place finish in Europa League Group A
Napoli: Third in Serie A, 15W 5D 4L; Qualified through third-place finish in Champions League Group F
The match will start Thursday at 9:05 PM CET/3:05 PM EST. Television coverage will be on Sky Calcio 2 in Italy, ITV 1 in the UK, and Fox Sports 2 in America. Other live viewing options can be found here, and as always, we'll have a match thread live here for discussion of the game at hand. You can also follow along with us live on Twitter.