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Barcelona are in the strange position of not really wanting to be here. For the first time since 2003/04, the Blaugrana will not be participating in the knockout phase of the Champions League this season. That is because they were unable to finish in the top two of their group, with Bayern Munich and Benfica qualifying for the last 16 ahead of them. The four-time Champions League winner Xavi Hernandez, who oversaw Barcelona’s final two group games as manager, is in unfamiliar territory.
But now that they are in the Europa League, we can expect Barcelona to embrace it. The tournament has undergone something of a revamp this term. Previously the group stage of the competition was followed by a round of 32, but that has been replaced by a preliminary knockout featuring eight Champions League drop-outs and eight Europa League group stage runners-up. Regardless, Barcelona are still only five victorious ties away from adding another trophy to the Camp Nou cabinet.
That could be significant for Xavi, whose side are not going to win the La Liga title or the Copa del Rey this season. There have been signs in recent weeks of Barcelona moving in the right direction. They are on an eight-match unbeaten run in the Spanish top flight and recently climbed into the top four for the first time since August. Barca carry a greater attacking threat these days; after hitting four goals past Atletico Madrid, they scored twice against Espanyol at the weekend.
This was always going to be a difficult campaign for Barcelona, who lost their greatest ever player last summer and have been hamstrung by financial difficulties throughout. There is still plenty to salvage, though, not least in the Europa League. Barcelona might prefer to be in the Champions League right now, but they cannot afford to turn their noses up at the continent’s secondary competition.
Napoli only narrowly missed out on top spot in Group C of the Europa League. An inferior head-to-head record with Spartak Moscow saw the Russian outfit advance in first place, but a 3-2 victory over Leicester City on matchday six kept Napoli’s participation in the tournament alive.
Luciano Spalletti’s side will arrive at the Camp Nou on Thursday in decent form. They are unbeaten in their last six encounters in Serie A, with four wins and a pair of respectable 1-1 draws against Juventus and Inter. Napoli are third in the standings at present, but just two points separate them from league leaders AC Milan. The Partenopei are very much a part of what looks set to be the most intriguing title race in Europe’s major leagues.
Thursday’s game, which has been billed as the ‘Diego Maradona derby’ by the media in both Spain and Italy, will be a stern test of Napoli’s credentials. Spalletti will hope his team defend as they do in Serie A rather than as they did in the group stage of this competition.
Napoli concede an average of just 0.68 goals per match in their domestic league, which compares favorably to 1.66 per game in the Europa League before Christmas. Outscoring Barcelona over two legs will be difficult, so Napoli will need to keep things reasonably tight at the back.
That will not be easy, however – particularly in the first leg in Catalonia. Barcelona have failed to score in just one of their 12 La Liga encounters under Xavi, a 1-0 defeat by Real Betis in early December. The January additions of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Ferran Torres and Adama Traore have added speed and dynamism to the forward line. Barcelona are also starting to move the ball with greater purpose, with the young midfield duo of Pedri and Gavi continuing to impress.
Napoli will therefore struggle to keep Barcelona’s attack quiet on Thursday, although Kalidou Koulibaly’s return after the Africa Cup of Nations is a boost. At the same time, though, there is reason to believe the Italian outfit will get on the scoresheet.
Xavi is still searching for the right balance between attack and defense. Barcelona have looked more dangerous going forward in recent outings, but that has coincided with an increase in the amount of goals they are conceding – the Blaugrana’s backline has been breached at least twice in three of their last four outings.
Home advantage could be key on Thursday and Barcelona have the quality to take a first-leg lead to Naples next week, but both teams to score and a home win is the best combination from a betting perspective.
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|Barcelona vs Napoli Information|
|Teams||Barcelona vs Napoli|
|Location||Camp Nou, Barcelona, Spain|
|Time||Thursday, 17 February 2022, 12.45 PM EST|
|How to watch||Paramount+|
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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