Napoli came into the day wondering who they would face in the first Europa League knockout round, and the news is ... not exactly ideal. Napoli will face Villarreal in the round of 32, and the partenopei faithful have every right to feel nervous.
Villarreal are in fifth in La Liga and just beat Real Madrid this past weekend after finishing second in their Europa League group. They could have finished first, but drew Viktoria Plzen away in the final round, allowing Rapid Vienna to pass them and take the top spot. Still, they've had a very impressive campaign this season, even in spite of losing some pretty important players in the summer.
Villarreal have several interesting players in their side, especially including Mexico international midfielder Jonathan Dos Santos. To make a comparison to Napoli, he's been their Allan this season -- an all-action midfield workhorse who flies all over the pitch making plays, both in attack and defense. They also feature Roberto Soldado, who hasn't recaptured his old scoring form from before his disastrous spell in England with Tottenham, but who still looks like a much more effective player than he's been in a few years, and will need to be accounted for when Napoli play the Spaniards.
Despite their long and interesting history, Villarreal have never won La Liga, and have only regularly been in Spain's top division since the turn of the century, only spending one season in La Liga before then. The Yellow Submarine -- yes, that's actually their nickname -- were relegated three years ago. The gained promotion after just one season, and finished sixth in La Liga each of the last two seasons. In terms of European competition, they've finished as runners-up once in each of the Champions League and Europa League.
The last time Napoli faced Villarreal in the Europa League was in 2011 in this same round. The Spaniards were victorious then, holding Napoli to a 0-0 draw at the San Paolo before winning 2-1 at the Madrigal. Napoli also faced Villarreal in the group stage of the Champions League in the following season, winning both matches 2-0 in a round that saw Villarreal get skunked with zero points. Last year, Villarreal made it to the round of 16 before falling to eventual champions Sevilla.
The first leg will be played in Villarreal at the Madrigal on February 16th, with the return leg in Naples at the San Paolo on the 25th. Hold on, folks, because this tie is going to be a heck of a ride.