The Europa League doesn't carry near the prestige or financial value of the Champions League, but Napoli still find themselves in the competition, and this afternoon Napoli will find out just who they're facing in the next round, as well as their potential match in the round of sixteen should they defeat their next opponent.
First, the rules: as one of the top four teams to have been dropped from the Champion's League, Napoli will be in the "seeded pot" with the twelve Europa League group winners. That means their opponent will be one of the "non-seeded" clubs, made of of the twelve second-place Europa League teams or one of the other four teams to have been bounced from the Champions League.
The only clubs Napoli can't face in the next round are fellow Italian sides Juventus, who slumped their way out of the continent's top competition, and Lazio. That leaves fourteen potential opponents to look at, that can be grouped in to three categories for consideration.
AFC Ajax (Netherlands), FC Porto (Portugal), Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine)
These are the teams that Napoli will have to take very seriously if they want to advance. Ajax is the traditional power of the Dutch Eredivise, and they currently sit second in their league behind a surging Vitesse Arnheim side. They were handed a tough group assignment with Barcelona, AC Milan, and Celtic, and much like Napoli, fell just short on the last matchday, managing just a draw against Milan when a win was needed to advance. They're not quite the side this season that they've been in the recent past, but they'll still be a tough matchup for Napoli if they get drawn together.
FC Porto is probably the side that should be feared the most. The Portuguese powerhouse had a miserable group stage in the Champions League, but their team is loaded with talent. Even if they sell some of their top players as some are anticipating, they'll be a dangerous team to face. Ditto Dynamo Kyiv, who are arguably the best club in Eastern Europe not named Shaktar.
Not Major Concerns:
Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk (Ukraine), Swansea City (England), Real Betis (Spain), Anji Makhachkala (Russia), PAOK FC (Greece), Viktoria Plzen (Czech Republic)
The clubs in this group are all sides that Napoli should beat without too much trouble if they decide they want to take Europa seriously, but could still have the opportunity to trip up our boys in blue. Dnipro and Swansea are both sides that have disappointed to varying degrees in their leagues, but have the potential to put on impressive displays on their days.
PAOK find themselves second in the Greek Superleague, but lack the talent to really go head to head with some of the heavy hitters in the Europa knockout rounds. Still, they play an organized brand of football that could be tough to break down without a focused performance. Viktoria Plzen are the defending Czech champions, and while they won just one Champions League group match, they have a young team full of intriguing talent who have the ability to blow up for a big performance at any time.
Real Betis and Anji Makhachkala find themselves at the bottom of their respective leagues, but could still be a threat. Betis held their own in a group that included French giants Lyon (albeit slightly fallen giants) and a Vitoria side in Portugal that's no pushover. While Anji has yet to win in their league and their road to the elimination rounds wasn't as hard as Betis', they still have some premium talent left over from their massive summer sell-off that could have the potential to surprise people. Of course, that would require them to keep that talent this January, which might not happen.
FC Chronomorets Odesa (Ukraine), Esbjerg fB (Denmark), NK Maribor (Slovenia), Maccabi Tel-Aviv (Israel), FC Slovan Liberec (Czech Republic)
The only reason any of these clubs should trouble Napoli is if Rafa Benitez decides to dump the competition and just plays scrubs. The only team of any current note is NK Maribor, the first Slovenian club to make the Europa knockout rounds.
The draw will be completed at 1 PM CET/7AM EST. The first knockout round's matches will take place on February 20th and 27th, and the round of 16, should Napoli make it that far, will be played on the 13th and 20th of March. We'll have a more detailed preview as soon as we can once the draw has been made. In the meantime, feel free to discuss it here.