Napoli will hope to overturn a 1-0 deficit as they welcome Villarreal to the Stadio San Paolo for the second leg of their Europa League round of 32 on Thursday.
It has not been a pleasant week and a half for Maurizio Sarri’s men, who are now without a win in their past three games across all competitions. The Partenopei have slipped down to second in the table after losing to Juventus, which was then followed up by disappointment in Spain in Europa League action. And finally, this past Monday, they were unable to capitalize on La Vecchia Signora’s draw with Bologna to re-claim top spot after having to settle with a 1-1 draw against AC Milan.
The Napoli-born tactician will hope that his men will be able to forget this bad result as Thursday’s game will mark a century of European fixtures for the hosts in this competition (this includes when the Europa League, of course, was known as the UEFA Cup). Having scored 22 goals – the highest out of any other side in this season’s edition of the Europa League – the Partenopei also boast an excellent home record in continental competition. They will be coming into this match having won 12 and drawn four of their last 16 fixtures; the last time they were defeated was during this same juncture three seasons ago, when they were shocked 3-0 by Viktoria Plzeň.
Napoli also boast the unique distinction of being the only Serie A side who have beaten Villarreal at El Madrigal, and have yet to lose at home against Spanish opposition. The hosts also wrote their name into the history books as they are now the sixth team since the creation of the Europa League to have successfully completed a group stage campaign with a 100 per cent win record, and netted a whopping 15 goals in their three group stage games, which, of course, averages out to five per match.
Having fielded a rotated line-up in the first-leg, Sarri will be loath to make the same mistake this time around, and fortunately for the Italian tactician, he has no injuries or suspensions to worry about. Fans will be hoping that captain Marek Hamšík will be able to resume his knack for netting against Villarreal; as the Slovak international has scored in three out of the two sides’ past six encounters.
Given that Napoli only conceded three goals in their group stage, Villarreal’s victory was even more impressive. Not only were the Yellow Submarine the first team to beat the Partenopei in the Europa League this season, but they are only the sixth side to prevent Napoli from scoring across all competitions this season. Marcelino’s troops will also be seeking to become the second team to beat Napoli at home this term since Inter did so in the Coppa Italia quarter-finals last month, and more significant, to successfully keep in form striker Gonzalo Higuain quiet for a fourth straight game.
Unlike the hosts, the visitors will be missing a few faces for this trip with one notable absence being Jonathan dos Santos who suffered an injury during the first leg last week. Should Villarreal manage to win tomorrow, they will certainly have even more reason to celebrate as it will be the first time they have defeated an Italian team on Italian soil; their past eight attempts have finished as five losses and three draws.
Will Napoli bounce back after a difficult past week and a half? Or will Villarreal record their first ever victory in Italy? This will surely be one of the more interesting Europa League fixtures coming up on Thursday and one definitely not to miss.
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