It's almost here: Athletic Bilbao are in town, and Napoli's bid for the Champions League is about to start.
v. Athletic Bilbao:August 19th, 2014 2045 CET, 1445 EST Stadio San PaoloNaples, Italy
Itching For A Return To Glory
It's been a long time since Athletic Bilbao made it to the Champions League Group Stage, all the way back in 1998. They're fared well in the Europa League, finishing as runners up in 2012, but are eager to test themselves on the biggest stage again.
The Basque club will make for a very tough opposition; they have a quality club with a style of play several talents that could give Napoli a hard time. Napoli will have to be at top form to beat them, but Bilbao will also have to be at their best to win out.
Athletic have had a bit of a mixed bag in their pre-season friendlies. They beat a good Borussia Monchengladbach side and drew with Werder Bremen, both in Germany, but they got their butts handed to them by very mediocre Toulouse and Osasuna sides. Bilbao have one distinct advantage over Napoli, however: their lack of World Cup players mean their squad have been training together for a much longer spell, and no key players are only recently coming off vacations.
Manager Ernesto Valverde had the following players travel to Italy and will select 18 players from among them:
Goalkeepers: Gorka Iraizoz, Iago Herrerín, Kepa Arrizabalaga
Defenders: Aymeric Laporte, Carlos Gurpegi, Xabier Etxeita, Mikel San José, Andoni Iraola, Mikel Balenziaga
Midfielders: Ander Iturraspe, Oscar De Marcos, Erik Morán, Unai López, Mikel Rico, Beñat Etxebarria
Forwards: Ibai Gomez, Markel Susaeta, Iker Muniain, Aritz Aduriz, Guillermo, Borja Viguera
A Point To Prove
For Napoli, essentially their entire season is on the line with these two matches. Fail to win, and anything short of a Scudetto win in Serie A will render this season a grave disappointment. They can, and should, beat Athletic Bilbao. Anything short of that will be a failure.
Does anything more than that need to be said? No? OK then, here's the 19 man squad Rafa will choose from tomorrow.
Goalkeepers: Rafael Cabral, Mariano Andujar, Nikita Contini
Defenders: Christian Maggio, Giandomenico Mesto, Raul Albiol, Kalidou Koulibaly, Miguel Britos, Faouzi Ghoulam
Midfielders: Walter Gargano, Jorginho, Gokhan Inler, Dries Mertens, Marek Hamsik
Forwards: Michu, Duvan Zapata, Gonzalo Higuain, Jose Callejon, Lorenzo Insigne
It's a solid group of players that gives Rafa Benitez his strongest available lineup and quality off the bench. Blerim Dzemaili, Henrique Buss, and Camilo Zuniga are both missing from the available group; Henrique and Zuniga are believed to not quite be match fit yet, and Dzemaili has been the target of almost non-stop transfer speculation in recent weeks.
Projected Lineups Sure To Be Wrong
Napoli: Rafael; Maggio, Albiol, Koulibaly, Ghoulam; Jorginho, Inler; Callejon, Hamsik, Insigne; Higuain
Athletic Bilbao: Iraizoz; Iraola, San Jose, Laporte, Balenziaga; Iturraspe, Moran; Susaeta, Beñat, Muniain; Aduriz
How They Got here
Athletic Bilbao: Finished 4th in La Liga
Napoli: Finished 3rd in Serie A
The match will start Tuesday at 8:45 PM CET/2:45 PM EST. Television coverage will be on Sky Calcio in Italy, Sky Sports 5 in the UK, and Fox Sports 2 in the US. 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.