The Europa League is back! It feels like that statement should come with a snappy sitcom theme song, but it doesn't, so deal with it.
Napoli are in Turkey to face Trabzonspor, and it's a match that should be quite interesting. As the first match of a two-legged tie, Napoli don't have to win this to put themselves in to a good position; a scoring draw would be a positive result thanks to the away goals rule, especially if Napoli can score at least two goals. Of course, a win would still be very welcome because wins are always good.
Dreaming in claret and blue
Despite their status as a relative minnow among the 32 clubs still in the Europa League, Trabzonspor are a fairly decent side who should be taken seriously lest Napoli be cruelly surprised. Their defense has been leaky this season as a whole, though since goalkeeper Fatih Ozturk was benched (and then apparently banished from the team), they've been somewhat harder to score on.
Trabzonspor are a pretty fair attacking side, with 37 league goals to their credit, and 26 more in Europa League and Turkish Cup competitions. Worryingly for Napoli, they've been very good at set pieces, with Ersun Yanal's side having ten of their goals come from center backs, half of which have been scored by Algerian international Carl Medjani. In the league, 14 of their 37 goals have been from set pieces, though fortunately for Napoli they've scored just one on the counter, something that's been more of a problem than set piece defense of late.
The good news for Napoli is that several key players for the Turkish side will be unavailable. Former AC Milan player and current midfield workhorse Kevin Constant is suspended for the match, as is key attacking midfield creator Mehmet Ekici. Essaid Belkalim misses out with a hamstring injury, and forwards Waris Majeed and Mustapha yatabare are also out with their own injuries. In question for the match are fullback Jose Bosingwa and winger Yusuf Erdogan, though both are likely to be available in some form.
Consolidate or go for broke?
One has to wonder to some extent just how seriously Napoli will take the Europa League. We all know that Rafa Benitez loves winning all the trophies he can, but owner Aurelio De Laurentiis has never seemed like a particularly big fan of the competition. With Serie A looking more and more like a slugging match this season, it wouldn't be a giant shock if Napoli decide to consolidate their efforts on the league and push hard for second place to get that guaranteed spot in the Champions League group stage, rather than run the difficult path to that spot by winning the Europa League and risking falling off in the league.
It's unlikely that we get a truly clear picture of that intent tomorrow. Given Napoli's injury and suspension situation added to the tough nature of playing in Turkey, the lineup choices available to Rafa Benitez are fairly limited and won't be very telling to the club's plans for the rest of the Europa League. With Marek Hamsik questionable, Jorginho limited in training, David Lopez in need of a rest, and Gonzalo Higuain suspended for the next league match, there's likely only a few spots in the side that are up for grabs on Thursday.
Look for Napoli to push hard to score a goal or two in the first half in order to be able to take advantage of the away goals rule in the second leg, but in the second half of the match it's likely that the partenopei will shut up shop and just look to not concede any goals. Of course, that's frequently been a dangerous tactic for Napoli, especially against a side as strong on set pieces as Trabzonspor are. Given the hostile atmosphere and the tactics likely to be involved, there's every chance that this could quickly become a thoroughly unpleasant match for Napoli. Hopefully they can go in to the second leg at the San Paolo with some form of advantage.
Projected Lineups Sure To Be Wrong
Trabzonspor (4-2-3-1): Arikan; Bosingwa, Medjani, Demir, Nizam; Aydoglu, Cam; Atik, Hurmaci, Yilmaz; Cardozo
Napoli (4-2-3-1): Rafael; Maggio, Henrique, Koulibaly, Ghoulam; Gargano, Inler; Gabbiadini, De Guzman, Mertens; Higuain
Trabzonspor: 5th in Super Lig; 8W 9D 3L; 37 GF, 32 GA; League Form: WDWWD
Napoli: 3rd; 12W 6D 5L; 42 GF, 30 GA; League Form: LWWWW
How They Got Here
Trabzonspor finished second in Europa League Group L behind Polish side Legia Warsaw, losing both matches they played against Legia along the way. They won three of their other group stage matches, however, and drew the fourth, finishing with ten points, even with Belgian side KSC Lokeren and advancing over them thanks to their head-to-head record. Napoli easily won Group I, losing just one match and finishing with a commanding +8 goal differential.
TV: Sportsnet One (Canada), Premium Calcio 2/HD (Italy), Smart Spor (Turkey)
Online: Fox Soccer 2GO, ESPN 3 (U.S.), Sportsnet World Now (Canada), Premium Play (Italy)
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