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Wednesday, 12 March 2014 09:29

Napoli - the expert lowdown

In-depth look at FC Porto's Europa League opponents

benitez-higuain-napoli.jpgLuís Castro will look to build on a positive start to his tenure as the new FC Porto head coach on Thursday. The Portuguese Champions go into the Europa League match against Napoli at the Estádio do Dragão on the back of a thumping 4-1 victory over Arouca. But Napoli are not Arouca. Italian football expert Jack Rathborn gives us the lowdown on the Italian outfit.


1. How did Napoli get here? Give us a quick guide to Napoli’s path to the last 16 of the Europa League.

Napoli arrive at the last 16 stage of the Europa League after dropping out of the Champions League at the group stage - cruelly losing out to Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal in the group of death, despite amassing the same amount of points (12) as their rivals.

The Partenopei made hard work of a Swansea side in the round of 32 tie, needing goals from Gonzalo Higuain and Gokhan Inler with 12 minutes remaining of the second leg to progress to the next round with a 3-1 win on aggregate.
2. Current form. How have Napoli looked form-wise in recent weeks?
Napoli are gradually building some momentum and approaching their best form of the season after seven months adapting to Rafael Benitez's very different methods to predecessor Walter Mazzarri.
With the addition of Faouzi Ghoulan, signed from Saint-Étienne in January, Napoli finally have a left-back who is comfortable in a back four - Mazzarri had preferred a back three for the majority of his four years in charge at the club.
Benitez's side are now eight matches unbeaten, and the quickness in which the Algerian international has settled into the side has been a major factor in tightening up the defence that has conceded just four goals in this recent run.
Despite this run containing a couple of frustrating draws, two victories against Roma have raised morale and given them immense belief that they can come out on top against strong opposition, carrying on from notable victories in the Champions League against Dortmund and Arsenal, making them a formidable side when playing at their home, the Stadio San Paolo.
3. Ones to watch - Who are Napoli's star players?

Gonzalo Higuain, of course. The Argentine has hit the ground running since arriving in Naples, scoring 20 goals already, as well as providing 10 assists. One of the world's most deadly finishers, Pipita comes alive inside the penalty area and Porto will need to keep him quiet during the tie if they are to progress to the quarter-finals.
Given the difficulties in the defensive transition under Benitez, the cutting edge of their attack has carried them for the majority of the season, and if Higuain takes the majority of the plaudits for his prolific goalscoring form, Dries Mertens and Jose Maria Callejon has also been sensational from the wide areas to support the former Real Madrid star.
The Belgian international is one of the best dribblers in Europe coming inside from the left flank, with outstanding vision, the 26-year-old poses a real threat for defences. With the ability to drop a pass on a dime for Higuain to collect in behind the opposition's defence, as well as the willingness to unleash a powerful strike on goal should defenders back off, or sit deep.
Callejon is equally dangerous from the right, and is currently in the midst of the form of his career, since arriving from Real Madrid last summer. The Spaniard is a real goal threat, having chipped in with 15 goals of his own this season. He is surprisingly strong in the air and his clever movement inside the penalty area will often see him sniff out a chance or two.
4. Strong points/weak points – what must Porto beware of and what can they exploit?

As mentioned when highlighting their strongest players, Napoli's strength comes in the form of the wide players, who are both real difference makers. In conjunction with Mertens and Callejon, Lorenzo Insigne - the fans' favourite after graduating through the club's youth system - is a great alternative for Benitez, and his deadly accuracy from free-kicks will be bound to be on the mind of Helton.

While the wide areas of the attacking trident that support Higuain are a real strength, the trequartista, Marek Hamsik, is having a frustrating season. The Slovakian has had a series of injuries to contend with and appears to be struggling to adjust to the slightly different role he takes up in Benitez's 4-2-3-1 formation, as opposed to being one of two attacking midfielders in Mazzarri's 3-4-2-1 system.

Napoli may also struggle for a source of creativity from deeper areas, too, as Benitez opted against including Jorginho in his Europa League squad, after the 22-year-old arrived at the club in January.  The Brazilian is likened to Andrea Pirlo due to the manner in which he can control Napoli's tempo from in front of the back four, but without him, any combination of Swiss trio Blerim Dzemaili, Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami lack any sort of consistency with their passing.
5. Formation and playing style – what system do Napoli usually play? Would you describe them generically as an attacking or a defensive team?
As outlined above, Benitez had no qualms about dispatching the three centre-back formation that the side had been used to for four years when he arrived last summer. And while teething problems for the defence have surfaced, the squad have successfully adjusted to the 4-2-3-1 system.
The Azzurri are most definitely an attacking outfit, despite their Spanish coach's previous reputation. Despite their attacking instincts, Napoli are at their best when they their opponents are confident enough to take the game to them.
A trademark of Napoli sides over recent years has been their devastating counter-attacks, and this has not changed under Benitez this season.
6. What are the local press saying about the tie? Who are considered favourites to progress?

Aurelio De Laurentiis, the club's owner, has expressed his respect for Porto, their incredible fans and the danger of the Portuguese champions' reaction to the recent managerial change. The Italian press have described this tie as worth of a final for this competition, so it is clearly a very appealing tie.  

Napoli appear to be considered favourites to progress here, probably down to their great effort in the group stage to push to top sides in Arsenal and Dortmund to the wire and match them on 12 points after six matches, while the Dragoes allowed Zenit to progress as runner-ups with a measly six points.
7. Mood in the camp – judging by player/coach quotes regarding this game, do you think Napoli come into the match in a confident frame of mind?

The mood in the camp is very good, the recent unbeaten streak has solidified the support for the manager and there is talk that Benitez is willing to commit long-term to the club—with some recent rumours of interest from the Qatar national team in his services.

As ambitious as it may sound, the talk is that he will not leave the club until he has won the Scudetto (Serie A) or the Champions League, with the owner describing him as "a maestro." 
8. What do you think the result of the match will be?

I expect Napoli to triumph over two legs, with the second leg at the intimidating San Paolo potentially proving decisive, as was the case against Swansea. Porto must take a lead to Naples, one would imagine, but with Benitez cleverly including defenders Ghoulam and Henrique in his UEFA list, over playmaker Jorginho, the Partenopei now look more stable than ever, which is so crucial in knock-out football.

The difference could be that Rafael Benitez, with a wealth of experience and success in European football, will ultimately outwit interim manager Luis Castro.

Given how content Benitez was to accept a 0-0 draw at the Liberty Stadium in the last round, I expect a cautious approach. I will opt for a 1-1 draw, with Napoli's newfound sturdiness at the back meaning they are unlikely to concede more than one. While the potent attacking talent will undoubtedly create enough opportunities on the break to score at least once against a Porto side that will need to bring the game to the Italians on their home turf.
Our thanks to Jack Rathborn. You can follow Jack on twitter @jackrathborn, and keep up to date specifically on all things Italian football at his work account @FRcalcioJack.



Comments (1)
Heavy Fixtures
1 Thursday, 13 March 2014 15:35
Confident words from Jack, but rightfully so. Napoli seem like the the pre-favorites, but I expect a hardworking and hungry Porto.

Making a deep run in the Europa League will be crucial as to whether we will find ourselves rolling at the bottom of Pot 1 or Pot 2 in next season's Champions League draw (given we qualify, naturally).

Solid preview, as always.

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