Being in the Europa League when you're a fan of a club like Napoli isn't exactly thrilling and fun, but it's the reality Napoli have had to deal with this season thanks to not making it through their Champions League playoff match. They were able to win their group, and now are getting ready to find out who they'll be paired with in the round of 32, the first knockout stage of the Europa League.
Thanks to that first-place finish in their group, Napoli won't be drawn against any of the other group winners of the top four teams of the eight that dropped out of the Champions League. They also can't face Young Boys, the other club that qualified out of their group, or other Italian teams, which cuts out Torino from the second-place Europa finishes and Roma from the four possible Champions League opponents.
That leaves thirteen possible opponents for Napoli. Who's the weakest? Who's the strongest? What else of interest is there in this draw for the partenopei?
Best Draw - Aalborg BK
6th in Superliga (Denmark) - 2nd in Europa League Group J
All respect to Aalborg, but they're extremely lucky to be this far in the competition. Never one of the strongest sides in the Europa League, the Danish side were fortunate just to make the group stage, then benefited from ex-Steaua Bucharest's collapse in form while the Romanian side deals with a multitude of off-pitch distractions.
AaB isn't a bad team by any means, they're just not good enough to be hanging with this crowd for long. Even Slovan Bratislava, who Napoli kicked the snot out twice in group play, would give the Danes a lot of headaches. Every seeded team is going to be hoping to catch them in the draw, as playing them represents any side's best chance at making the round of 16.
Worst Draw - Ajax
2nd in Eredivisie (Holland) - 3rd in Champions League Group F
Ajax won just five points in their Champions League group, but when you have to deal with Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, you'd have a hard time winning matches too. Ajax might have the most pure talent of any team currently in the Europa League, and could very easily go a long ways in this competition.
Despite their Champions League struggles and a recent speedbump in league form, Ajax are a very, very good side, and their free-flowing attack would wreak havoc on Napoli if they have to play, given where the partenopei tend to struggle in defense. If this is the draw Napoli wind up with, it's going to take a lot of hard work and a hell of a performance to advance.
Fallen Giant Draw - Celtic
1st in Premiership (Scotland) - 2nd in Europa League Group D
Celtic's lack of any meaningful competition in Scotland has cost them dearly in European play. It took one opponent playing an ineligible player to keep them in Champions League qualifying against one team they should have trounces, and even poor refereeing decisions in their favor couldn't save them against a second. Then, once handed what looked like a straightforward Europa draw, Celtic won just group matches and got their butts handed to them in two others, managing to only just scrape by in to the knockout rounds.
They've been scattered and ineffective in all phases of their game at times this season, and have yet to find one truly effective lineup that gets them playing consistently well. A series of injuries and a long suspension to one key attacker because he's an idiot has only further complicated matters. Think of Napoli's struggles, only more annoying. They're still first in the Scottish Premiership because, well, the Scottish Premiership sucks and they're the only halfway decent team there.
Disappointing Headache Draw - Liverpool
9th in Premier League (England) - 3rd in Champions League Group B
Out of the Champions League when a strong run was expected. A disappointing league campaign that has failed to build on last season's successes. A manager under fire. With that description, you'd think we were talking about Napoli, right? In truth, we're talking about one of Rafa's old clubs: English outfit Liverpool.
The Anfield giants haven't had a lot of success since Rafa pulled up stakes and left England. Brendan Rodgers pulled the club up to second last season and only lost the EPL title on the last matchday, but things are.... not quite so smooth this season. They've already lost more matches than they did all of last season, and Rodgers might not even make it to February with his job in tact.
Where things make this tie interesting are Rafa's close ties to Liverpool, a club whose fans still adore him and a city he still calls home. Many Liverpool fans would love to see him manage the side again, and openly campaigned for just that before Rodgers was hired. There's also a chance that a certain writer who covers both teams implodes if this draw happens. So there's always that.
The full set of teams Napoli can be drawn against is below. Who do you want to see Napoli face off against in the next round of the Europa League?