Barcelona will be looking to secure an advantage when they welcome Napoli to Camp Nou on Thursday evening for the first leg of their knockout round playoff clash in the Europa League.
The Catalan giants dropped into this competition after finishing third in their Champions League group, while Napoli finished second in their Europa League section behind Spartak Moscow.
Thursday’s contest will be Barcelona’s first ever clash in the Europa League, having failed to progress to the knockout round of the Champions League for the first time in 17 years, finishing third in Group E behind Bayern Munich and Benfica, losing three of their six games in the process.
This is not the tournament that the Catalan giants will want to be competing in, but it represents their only realistic chance of silverware this term, having been eliminated from the Copa del Rey, while they sit fourth in La Liga, 15 points behind leaders Real Madrid following Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Espanyol in the derby.
Barcelona, who lost to Paris Saint-Germain in last season’s Champions League round of 16, last played in the UEFA Cup back in 2003-04, reaching the fourth round of the competition before losing to Celtic.
The La Liga outfit have also worryingly lost three of their last five European home fixtures, but they are unbeaten in their last eight UEFA Cup matches at Camp Nou, recording five wins in the process.
Barcelona last locked horns with Napoli in the last-16 stage of the Champions League back in 2020, running out 4-2 winners on aggregate, drawing 1-1 in Italy before winning the reverse match 3-1 at Camp Nou.
Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne celebrates scoring their first goal with Matteo Politano on February 12, 2022© Reuters
Barcelona might be lacking experience in this competition, but the same cannot be said for Napoli, who are appearing in the knockout round of the Europa League for the ninth time, which is a competition record alongside Ajax and Olympiacos.
The Italian outfit have been eliminated in the round of 32 on five occasions, while they reached the round of 16 in 2013-14, quarter-finals in 2018-19 and semi-finals in 2014-15; the Serie A giants were underwhelming in the competition last term, though, losing to Granada in the round of 32.
Napoli booked their spot in the knockout round of this season’s competition by finishing second in Group C, picking up 10 points from their six matches against Spartak Moscow, Leicester City and Legia Warsaw.
Luciano Spalletti’s side will enter this contest off the back of a 1-1 draw with Inter Milan in Serie A on Saturday, which has left them in third position in the table, just two points behind leaders AC Milan, so they are very much in a title race this season.
Gli Azzurri have won six, drawn six and lost eight of their previous 20 matches against Spanish clubs in UEFA competition, while they have lost on seven of their 10 visits to Spain, including a 3-1 defeat when they travelled to Barcelona in the last-16 stage of the 2019-20 Champions League.