There are two massive matches coming up for Napoli next month, as they're slated to play in the Champions League Playoff round to determine if they participate in this year's Champions League group stage or drop down to the depths of the Europa League. Napoli have lined up some pretty big friendlies for early next month to prepare for it, and are adding to their squad in anticipation of a long Champions League run. There's just one problem...
... they still don't know who they're playing.
That bit of haze over the works will start to clear tomorrow, though. The first leg of the Third Qualifying Round ties will kick off (some are played today, but none relevant to Napoli), and while most of the matches won't affect Napoli by the way the qualifying processes are set up, five should be of great importance and interest to Napoli fans around the world.
Before we get too deep in to looking at the teams and possibilities, let's first recap where we are, how we got here, and what's next.
Napoli are where they are because they finished third in Serie A. In England, Spain, or Germany, that would mean a free pass straight to the group stage, but Italian clubs aren't that lucky these days since Italian teams have been terrible in Europe for most of the last ten years. Instead, Napoli have to win a two-legged tie against a club that's already been through a round or three of Champions League qualifiers.
Since Napoli didn't win a lesser league, they'll be facing one of the other "Best Placed Qualifiers" rather than a league winner. That's actually almost a shame, because the matchups on their side of the bracket are much trickier, with really only Celtic presenting a challenge among the winners.
Napoli's standing in the UEFA coefficient list means that they'll be one of the seeded sides in the tie, meaning they'll avoid most of the toughest sides in the Best Place group, but there's still a few tricky sides in the list. Whichever side Napoli is drawn against on August 8th will have to be defeated over a two-legged tie, with the winner moving on and the loser dropping to the unwanted Europa League.
Now, with all that out of the way, lets look at the matchups.
Zenit st. petersburg (RUS) v. ael limassol (CYP)
This one's only relevant to Napoli in a tangential sense. If Zenit advance (and they will, unless Andre Vilals-Boas is crazier and/or worse as a manager than I think he is), they'll join Napoli amongst the "seeded" teams thanks to their stronger UEFA coefficient, dropping Atheltic Bilbao (ESP) down to the draw pool and a tougher matchup. Of course, that would also leave Bilbao as possibly the strongest of the unseeded sides, and a tough matchup should they be drawn against Napoli.
Bilbao are a bit of a rarity in modern football, as they only recruit and purchase players from the local Basque region of Spain. That can sometimes leave them in a little bit of a lurch in the transfer market when their best players leave, as Ander Herrera did this summer and Ferndando Llorente did a year ago. Fortunately for them, the Basque region is talent-rich when it comes to footballers, and they still have such young talents as Iker Munian, Aymeric Laporte (a rare and currently the only exception to the club's Basque rule), and Ander Iturraspe to rely on.
Ernesto Valverdo lead Bilbao to a surprising fourth-place finish in La Liga last season, pulling clear of Sevilla, Villareal, and regional rivals Real Sociedad late in the season. His side is active, pressing high and always looking to flip a change of possession in to a quick counter. They also sustain possession well and can build up play, though their lack of a physical presence outside of set pieces will make life easier for Napoli.
Bilbao would definitely be a winnable matchup for Napoli, but would require a full-effort type of display. No sleepwalking allowed.
dnipro dnipropetrovsk (UKR) v. fc København (DEN)
This is actually kind of a fun matchup. Dnipro are quietly one of Ukraine's best sides, though they all exist in the shadows of the giant that Shaktar Donetsk has become. Boasting such talents as Evgen Konoplyanka, Ivan Strinic, Douglas Silva, and Roman Zozulya, they're definitely a side to be taken seriously even in an early round such as this.
They play an aggressive, attacking 4-2-3-1 not at all unlike Napoli's version of the formation, with a solid double pivot, a chaotic and hard to track attacking midfield band, and a striker responsible for cleaning up the messes left behind. It's an effective tactic when you have a personnel group like Dnipro does, and Myron Markevych's side is one that can and will cause headaches for bigger teams if given the chance.
Despite the fact that teams from Denmark don't traditionally do well in the Champions League (and the fact that København didn't win their own league), the Danish side of this tie is actually quite good. Their squad includes a number of international players for both Denmark and Sweden, and their 22 year old captain Thomas Delaney is one of the brightest Scandinavian midfielders to emerge in the last few years.
Their league actually just finished its second week of action, and København finds themselves in third place with four points after beating Norsjaelland 2-1 over the weekend. Stale Solbakken typcially runs out a 4-4-2 with more defensive-minded central midfielders, using the pace of his wingers and power of his strikers to get his attack going. That works well in Denmark, but against faster, stronger, more technical sides in European competition, it leaves him a little short-changed.
Dnipro are likely to win this tie, and represent one of the more under-rated threats to Napoli's ability to progress. København could be dangerous as well, but would represent a much easier potential draw should they upset their Ukranian opponents. Either way, Napoli should be able to beat the winner as long as they stay focused and don't crap the bed.
Feyenoord (NED) v. Beşiktaş (TUR)
This might be the top matchup of the round. Feyenoord are a traditional power in Holland's Eredivisie, and in recent years have been riding an Ajax-like continuous crop of high quality young talent to success. This summer, though, they've lost a lot of that talent, with Bruno Martins Indi, Daryl Janmaat, Stefan De Vrij, and Graziano Pelle all scattering across Europe with new clubs.
Fred Rutten still has a strong side to trot out, though. Jordie Clasie, Tonny Vilhena, and Ruud Vormer form a good midfield trio, and they have a healthy set of attackers to rotate through. People like to make fun of sides from the Eredivisie not named Ajax (and sometimes even Ajax), but Feyenoord are not a side to be taken lightly.
They certainly won't be taken lightly by their opponents, Turkey's Beşiktaş. Last season's third-placed finished have a strong side with plenty of national team players from Turkey and abroad, and just added to an already-strong attacking group by adding Demba Ba from Chelsea. Slavan Bilic's side is well-drilled, talented, and looks to take advantage of any opportunity they can find. They are unquestionably one of the most dangerous sides that Napoli could face in the playoff round, and a tie against them would only be made harder by the always-difficult trip to Turkey for the away leg.
LOSC Lille (FRA) v. Grasshoppers (SWI)
People rarely think much of French sides, but Lille is actually surprisingly good. They've got great headline talent with Divock Origi, Salomon Kalou, Simon Kjaer, Sebastian Corchia, and Idrissa Gueye. They've got solid depth, with a mix of talented youths and experienced-but-still-good veterans. They have a manager in Rene Girard who is experienced and successful in getting the most out of exactly this kind of side.
They won't dazzle you with intense attacking play and sparkling through balls or the like, but Lille will play a responsible game without the ball and then use the quality of their forward line to create goals. It's not pretty, but it works pretty damn well.
Grasshoppers, sadly, shouldn't pose much of a challenge to Lille. They were something of a surprise qualifier out of the Swiss Super League, and just don't have the talent to hang with Lille for long, much less do much should they somehow get past their French opponents.
Lille actually stand a chance of being the toughest matchup for Napoli of their potential draw partners. Their style and quality is one that the partenopei struggled with at times last season, and a striker talent like Origi can always cause problems, even if the rest of the match is going against his side.
Standard Liege (BEL) v. Panathinaikos (GRE)
This is... not an exciting matchup, honestly. Panathinaikos are a stereotypical Greek side in that they defend, defend, defend, defend.... uh... defend... wait, isn't there supposed to be something else? .,... defend, defend... oh, right, counter! ... now back to defend, defend, defend...
Pretty much, they're boring. They're not a bad side, but other than perhaps struggling to score more than a goal or two, Napoli shouldn't have too much trouble with them. Their best player is Daniel Pranjic for crying out loud.
Standard Liege aren't really much better, if any. They're your standard issue mid-major European side: good in their league (the Belgian Pro League, in this case), mediocre at best when exposed to good teams from the rest of Europe. They have a few interesting young talents, but on a whole their roster is pretty "meh".
Napoli should be able to overcome both teams without too much fuss, but obviously can't afford to go to sleep against either.
The first leg of matches start tomorrow, July 30th. The return leg for some teams is August 5th, the rest on the 6th, the same date as Napoli's Barcelona friendly in Geneva (that timing and taking a trip for the friendly is almost assuredly not coincidental). The draw for the playoff round will be on August 8th, which we will cover and will give a more in-depth look at each of the five squads Napoli could be drawn against.
In the meantime, though, who do you want to see Napoli face off against among the possible teams?