The draw for the Champions League Playoff round is tomorrow at noon CET/6 AM EST, and Napoli will finally know who they'll face in the last two weeks of August and have to defeat in order to advance to the much-desired Group Stage.
Half the teams being drawn tomorrow can be ignored straight off; as a qualifier through league position, Napoli won't be paired with any of the "champions route" sides, or teams that qualified by winning lower-level leagues. As a "seeded" side in the "league route" (clubs that qualified through their finish in a higher-level league), Napoli can only be drawn against an "unseeded" side; the seeding is determined by each club's UEFA club coefficient standing (a metric also used for Group Stage pot seeding), where Napoli sit 31st, the lowest of the seeded sides. The coefficient is determined based on each club's performance in European competition over the last several years.
For reference, here's the full list of seeded and unseeded teams:
Seeded: Arsenal FC (ENG), FC Porto (POR), FC Zenit (RUS), Bayer 04 Leverkusen (GER), SSC Napoli (ITA)
Unseeded: Athletic Club (ESP), LOSC Lille (FRA), FC København (DEN), R. Standard de Liège (BEL), Beşiktaş JK (TUR)
We did a little bit of a team-by-team breakdown before the Third Qualifying round began, so rather than go through that, let's look at the toughest, easiest, and potentially most likely draws.
2014 Season: 4th in La Liga (ESP), 20 W, 8 D, 10 L
66 goals scored, 39 goals allowed
Third QR: N/A
Athletic Bilbao are the only unseeded side that skipped straight to the playoff round, thanks to Zenit St. Petersburg having a superior UEFA coefficient score. They're also the best of the unseeded sides and will give any of the teams that they're drawn with a hell of a fight, as they haven't been to the Group Stage since 1998 (which was, in fact, their only trip there as their previous Champions League forays were before the Group Stage existed), and they would very much like to get there again.
Their frontline star and danger man is Iker Muniain, a small attacking midfielder with lots of on-ball skill who gives defenders fits. He mostly plays from the left, meaning that Christian Maggio would have to be on his game to keep the 21 year old Basque-born dynamo at bay. He only scored 7 goals last season, but for his career he has 31 in 213 club matches, including eight in 33 Europa League matches.
Bilbao's aggressive style and talented squad (they also have Markel Susaeta and Ander Iturraspe to worry about, among others) make them a very difficult matchup for Napoli. On paper, Napoli have what it takes to see the Spaniards off, but matches aren't played on paper. Napoli will have to be at their best in order to win this one.
2014 Season: 2nd in Belgian Pro League Playoff (BEL), 4 W, 3 D, 3 L
14 goals scored, 11 goals allowed
1st in Belgian Pro League (BEL), 20 W, 7D, 3L
59 goals scored, 17 goals allowed
Third QR: def. Panathinaikos (GRE) 2-1 on aggregate
With all due apologies and respect to Standard Liege and their fans, the Belgian side is the weakest left in the Champions League qualification process. That's not to say that they're a bad side, they just simply don't have the quality talent to hang with any of the seeded teams. They did play convincingly in the away leg of their Third Qualifying Round tie with Greek side Panathinaikos, but as noted in the preview of that round, that was the weakest tie of the lot.
Standard's most talented player is probably winger Paul-Jose M'Poku, a 22 year old who has actually been loosely linked with Napoli of late. The former Tottenahm academy product has done very well for himself since joining Standard three years ago, including scoring the all-important winning goal against Panathinaikos earlier this week that put Standard in this position. Across all competitions, he's scored 25 goals since moving to Belgium, and is considered an emerging star of sorts, attracting attention from around Europe.
Others on Standard's roster certainly deserve respect and attention, such as Igor de Camargo, Mehdi Carcela, and Ronnie Stam, but on a whole they're simply lacking in the talent and difference-makers to make noise in this round. As long as Napoli play well and maintain their focus, this would be a tie that they should win very easily.
2014 Season: 3rd in Ligue 1 (FRA), 20 W, 11 D, 7 L
46 goals scored, 26 goals allowed
Third QR: def. Grasshoppers (SWI) 3-1 on aggregate
Lille are a fun little team with buckets of talent. They had a relatively easy matchup in the Third Qualifying Round, seeing off Grasshoppers 3-1 on aggregate, including a 2-0 win in the away leg in Switzerland. They're a side that plays smart and to the strengths of their players, a tactic that's given fits to the more traditional powers in France such as PSG, Lyon, Marseilles, and even hyper-rich Monaco. They've built a squad that's talented and well-constructed, with a good mix of talented youth and experienced veterans scattered all over the roster.
If you had to pick out one danger man, it'd be Liverpool loanee Divock Origi. The 19 year old Belgian striker did very well for Lille in the second half of last season, drawing attention from his current parent club, and then exploded in to prominence during the World Cup as he put in several stellar performances for Belgium, including earning starts over the much more heralded Romelu Lukaku. His athleticism and natural instincts are enough to give any side fits, and Napoli's central defenders will have to be at the height of their powers in order to contain him.
Lille have plenty of other dangerous players too, including Salomon Kalou, Simon Kjaer, Sebastian Corchia, and Idrissa Gueye. Their talent and style make for a fascinating matchup for Napoli, and if drawn together this would have all the makings of a slugging match that would be endlessly entertaining for neutrals, and induce heart attacks for the supporters of either side. Even though Bilbao are the harder opponent and Napoli should be able to beat Lille in the end thanks to superior talent, this might be the matchup to hope to avoid above all others.
Again, the draw is tomorrow (Friday) at noon CET/6 AM EST. Be sure to tune in to see who Napoli get paired with; in the meantime, who do you want to see them drawn against?