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Monday's friendly against PSG was a crucial test for Napoli ahead of the tie against Athletic Bilbao.
Napoli qualified directly for the group stage the last two times they made the Champions League, but this time they'll have to go through the playoff.
As the last of the seeds in the league route, the Partenopei were drawn against Spanish side Athletic Bilbao. This can be seen as a blessing and a curse.
Of all the unseeded teams in the pot, Bilbao is probably the strongest. They are well-coached by Ernesto Valverde and are relatively experienced in Europe, having reached the final of the Europa League 2011-12. They adjusted marvelously to the departure of long-standing star forward Fernando Llorente and picked up some impressive results, including a 1-0 victory over Barcelona in December and a 1-1 draw against Real Madrid two months later.
Aritz Aduriz paced the team in scoring, while Ander Herrera controlled the midfield. They won their Champions League place by a handy seven points—although they were 17 points off of third.
As good as Bilbao is, there are some things of which Napoli can take advantage. Herrera now plies his trade at Manchester United, and his departure deprives Bilbao of a major weapon. Look for Gokhan Inler and Marek Hamsik to exploit this and impose themselves on the battle for midfield.
Another weakness Rafael Benitez can exploit is Bilbao's inferior form on the road. The team was 13-4-2 (W-D-L) with a plus-24 goal differential at the San Mames last season but only 7-6-6 with a plus-three differential on their travels.
The Stadio San Paolo may be getting old, but it still affords Napoli a home-field advantage that is arguably the best in Serie A after Juventus Stadium. If they can capitalize on Bilbao's road weakness in the first leg and saddle them with a sizable deficit, it will lessen the challenge of playing in Spain a week later.
An often overlooked but no less important part of this matchup will be match fitness. Spain and Italy traditionally start their seasons two weeks later than the rest of Europe, which has caused problems for Italian clubs at this stage.
Before Milan advanced through the playoff last year, Italy had gone two years without doing so. Both times, Udinese had played their opponents quite evenly but conceded late goals that eventually dropped them into the Europa League. The difference in those ties was that their opponents—Arsenal in 2011 and Braga in 2012—had both already begun playing league games. Consequently, they had begun preseason training earlier and therefore had a key fitness advantage.
By drawing a Spanish team, that nagging concern has been eliminated, as neither side will be playing competitively before the tie begins.
This will be a stern test for Napoli, but it's one that, on paper anyway, they should be able to handle. Look for them to try to blow the lid off the Spaniards at the San Paolo. That will force Bilbao to chase the tie in the return leg and allow Napoli opportunities for counterattacks.
Expect three Italian teams in the group stage for the second consecutive year.