Napoli's next European opponent has been identified, with Swansea City pulled out of the pot to face off against the partenopei. The Welsh side have impressed since their promotion to the English Premier League two and a half years ago, and have the potential to give Napoli a rough go of things if not taken seriously.
How They Got Here:
Swansea earned their Europa qualification by winning England's League Cup competition, taking down major clubs like Chelsea and Liverpool en route to beating League Two side Bradford City 5-0 in the final at Wembley Stadium. They still had to face two qualification rounds before reaching the group stage, however, and they dispatched Swedish side Malmö FF and Romanian club Petrolul Ploiesti with ease.
Drawn in to a group with Valencia (Spain), Kuban Krasnodar (Russia), and FC St. Gallen (Switzerland), Swansea had a solid chance to advance, and they did. What they did not do, however, was make it easy on themselves. They won away at Valencia in impressive fashion in their first group match, then edged St. Gallen at home to put themselves in the driver's seat of the group. As their league form slumped, however, so did their European form. They drew both matches against Kuban and then struggled to back-to-back losses against Valencia and St. Gallen, finishing in second with eight points, just two ahead of the Russian and Swiss sides.
Danish coach Michael Laudrup is in his second season in charge of the Swans, and has brought a new style and attitude to the club. Gone is the possession-style football that Brendan Rodgers used to get Swansea promoted and then secured in the Premier League. In it's place is an aggressive, high-pressing side that drives in to the box with purpose and isn't afraid to hit hard on the counter instead of building up play.
Laudrup employs a 4-2-3-1 like Rafa Benitez does, though the execution is different. The lone striker operates as something of a "false nine", or in a more withdrawn role with more playmaking responsibilities than you typically see in a lone man up top. The two-man midfield pivot has more playmaking responsibility than Napoli's, but is just as important in the defensive phase. In the attacking midfield band, the outer two players are asked to stay wider, pressing the fullbacks when Swansea are not in possession and serving crosses and attacking from the edges of the box when Swansea has the ball. When things are clicking, it's a system that can be quite effective, though the EPL seems to have figured it out somewhat and adjustments are required.
Swansea has a fairly young team, but it's a very talented one with a lot of Spanish flair. The headliner is Michu, a Spanish dynamo who took the Premier League by storm last season, bagging 18 goals in 35 matches. He's cooled considerably this season, though, with just two goals to his name in the league and four more in Europa. Their co-leading scorers are winger Nathan Dyer and striker Wilifred Bony, with four league goals apiece. Dyer will be out for awhile with damaged ankle ligaments suffered this past weekend, so is unlikely to be a factor, but Bony has been a key cog in Swansea's Europa campaign, with five goals and two assists in nine matches.
In midfield, Jonjo Shelvey has been the main man behind the striker. Purchased from Liverpool in something of a shock move over the summer, the 21 year old has been a box-to-box powerhouse for the Swans. He's tied with Michu and winger Wayne Routledge with five assists in all competitions, and has scored three goals himself, all in the league. Dutch midfielder Jonathan de Guzman is the more creative half of the pivot (though José Cañas is no creative slouch himself), using pinpoint long passing to spring the men ahead of him.
The defense is where most of Swansea's remaining Welsh roots remain. Their captain is Ashley Williams, who's a bit of a hothead but is a fairly reliable center back. At left back, the Swans have two excellent young Welshmen: Neil Taylor and Ben Davies. Taylor, 24, was once the starter, but he's been surpassed this season by Davies, 20, who's considered one of the top left back prospects in the UK. Spaniards Chico (center back), Jordi Amat (center back) and Angel Rangel round out the primary rotation at the back.
Napoli start their Europa journey in Wales, facing Swansea City at Swansea Stadium on February 20th at 9 PM CET/noon EST. The home leg comes a week later, on the 27th at 7 PM CET/ 10:00 AM EST.
Should Napoli manage to get past Swansea, either FC Porto or Eintracht Frankfurt await them in the round of 16. Frankfurt have focused their energies on Europa this season at great cost to their league standing, sitting just above the relegation zone in Germany. Porto will be the much tougher ask for Napoli to get past, but the Portuguese giants have had a rough season and could be gotten past with a concerted effort.