Champions League Playoff: Athletic vs. Napoli Second-Leg Preview

Sam LoprestiFeatured ColumnistAugust 26, 2014

Champions League Playoff: Athletic vs. Napoli Second-Leg Preview

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    Lorenzo Insigne and Napoli have a tall order ahead of them as they try to qualify for the group stage.
    Lorenzo Insigne and Napoli have a tall order ahead of them as they try to qualify for the group stage.Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

    As soon as Napoli and Athletic Bilbao were matched together in the Champions League playoff, most knew it would be the tie of the round.  Both teams have quality players.  

    Both play in stadiums that turn into cauldrons on matchday.  Both teams have quality managers.  And last but certainly not least, both were desperate to grasp a spot in the group stage.

    Both teams managed a tally in the first leg at the Stadio San Paolo.  Both teams also had the opportunities for more.  Napoli in particular squandered several early chances and were pressing hard for a winner by game's end.

    Now we take a look at how the second leg might look and what each team needs to do to gain that coveted place in the group stage and avoid playing on Thursdays in the Europa League.

    Who moves on?  Read on to find out.

Tale of the Tape

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    Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images
    Athletic Bilbao Napoli
    Los LeonesNicknamePartenopei
    Ernesto ValverdeCoachRafael Benitez
    Carlos GurpegiCaptainMarek Hamsik
    16 (0-0-1, 0 pts)

    Table Position (domestic)

    4th (20-10-8, 70 pts)

    2013-14 Domestic Finish 

    3rd (23-9-6, 78 pts)
    8 (Last 1983-84)

     Domestic Titles

    2 (Last 1989-90)

    UCL: 0 (Best finish: QF 1956-57)

    UEFA Cup/Europa: 0

    (Runners-up 1976-77, 2011-12) 

    European Titles

    UCL: 0 (Best finish: round of 16 2011-12)

    UEFA Cup/Europa: 1 (1988-89)

    2012-13: Europa League Group Stage

    Last European Season

    2013-14: UCL Group Stage, Europa League round of 16


    Head-to-Head Wins (1 Draw)



    Last 5 Matches


    *Preseason friendly

    **Champions League

Athletic Bilbao Overview

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    Iker Muniain's goal is, for the moment, crucial.
    Iker Muniain's goal is, for the moment, crucial.Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

    Bilbao's trip to Naples went exceptionally well on Tuesday.  They caught a crucial away goal and prevented Napoli from doing more than equalize.  Now they go to their impressive home stadium with their opponents having everything to do.

    Getting out of the first leg with an edge—however slight it may be—is massive for Los Leones.  Bilbao's road record was 7-6-6 (W-D-L) last season.  Given their road woes and Napoli's impressive record in the San Paolo, Bilbao were at a definite risk of having the tie get out of hand in the first leg.

    Now they move to home turf, where they were quite a different team a season ago—as a 13-4-2 record and plus-24 goal difference attests.

    A goalless draw would put Bilbao through—although Napoli is explosive enough that falling into that attitude too early in the game would be a bad idea.

    In spite of their success in Naples, there will be some worries for Ernesto Valverde's men.  Napoli wasted several golden opportunities in the beginning of the game and at the end.  Even though Bilbao thoroughly dominated several sequences of the game, Napoli had a healthy 60 percent of possession, according to

    Bilbao won't exactly be coming in on a high note either, having lost their first match of the La Liga season 1-0 at Malaga.  The controversial ending of that game may also send them into their first competitive match at home somewhat distracted.

    Trailing 1-0 in stoppage time, goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz came into the box for a free kick and thumped a beautiful header into the net for what seemed to be the equalizer.  But Bilbao soon stopped celebrating; the referee, for no discernible reason, had disallowed the goal.

    A controversial finish like that sticks with lesser sides.  Bilbao will have to show their mettle and push it aside in order to move on.

Napoli Overview

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    Gonzalo Higuain celebrates his 68th-minute equalizer.
    Gonzalo Higuain celebrates his 68th-minute equalizer.Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

    Given the problems Bilbao has had on their travels, Tuesday represents a massive missed opportunity for Napoli.  They missed several golden chances early in the game and looked generally sloppy, especially in the middle of the game.  Their passing simply wasn't up to snuff, and they couldn't string enough together to keep Bilbao from taking control in the latter part of the second half.

    The Serie A season starts later than any other in Europe, and it was clear that the Partenopei were not at full speed last week.  Their sloppy play could also be due to several coaching decisions, but we'll address those later.

    Advancing is incredibly important for this team.  Given the improvements made by Roma and the fine-tuning done by Juventus during the summer, Napoli are considered by most observers to be the third-best team in Serie A.  

    Aurelio De Laurentiis has been waiting to see if his team makes the group stage—and the money that comes with it—before adding pieces.  If they drop to the Europa League, it's unlikely that they will get any reinforcements.  It's no exaggeration to say that Napoli's prospects for their first Scudetto since Diego Maradona's played for them hinges on this tie.

    A goalless draw would put Bilbao through on away goals, so Napoli simply must score at least once.  If they do cancel out Bilbao's away goal, the permutations are numerous.  A 1-1 draw sends the game to extra time.  Any draw higher than that gives them the tie on away goals.  Any win, of course, puts them through—and any loss drops them to the Europa League.

Key Players: Athletic Bilbao

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    Iker Muniain will again be key for Bilbao.
    Iker Muniain will again be key for Bilbao.Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

    Iker Muniain

    Diminutive winger Muniain made a huge impact on the Napoli game.  His 41st-minute goal in the first leg was a thing of beauty, as he stopped a ground cross from Oscar de Marcos dead with his first touch and drilled the ball through a crowd of defenders and past an unseeing keeper with his second.

    Muniain will be key for getting through a sometimes shaky Napoli defense and padding their slim away-goal lead.  If he can't make an impact, the Italians will have a much easier time going forward.

    Gorka Iraizoz

    Iraizoz had a good first leg.  He kept the Bilbao defense organized despite steadily increasing pressure as the game went on.  Gonzalo Higuain's goal wasn't going to be stopped by anyone.

    Iraizoz is a very good keeper, and if his defense doesn't fail him he has the quality to keep Napoli out.  The wild card will be his head space after the strange denial of his last-gasp equalizer on Saturday.  He should be professional enough to push past it, but the pressure of Champions League soccer does things to people.  If he has a bad day, Bilbao will be in bad shape.

    Aritz Aduriz

    Aritz Aduriz has had three separate stints in Bilbao's first team and has been the team's leading scorer three times, including the last two seasons.  He has become the team's main striker since Fernando Llorente fell out of the side two years ago.

    Tied for sixth in La Liga in scoring last year, Aduriz needs to use his own movement to make space for the rest of his teammates and create more chances than in the first leg.

Key Players: Napoli

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    Lorenzo Insigne needs to elevate his play.
    Lorenzo Insigne needs to elevate his play.Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

    Lorenzo Insigne

    Simply put, Lorenzo Insigne needs to play better.

    To be fair, Insigne has been playing out of position under Rafael Benitez, but he is more than capable of playing the wing, and his team needs more out of him.  His play against Bilbao in the first leg was severely lacking, and he was deservedly replaced by Dries Mertens.

    A little more than a week remains in the transfer window, and if Insigne isn't able to help the Partenopei into the group stage he may very well be leaving the San Paolo.

    Since the turn of the calendar, Napoli's fans have slowly been turning on Insigne.  The 23-year-old is the only native Neapolitan on the club's roster and is often the only Italian in the starting lineup.  He was also Napoli's only representative on the Italian national team–and he didn't acquit himself well in Brazil.  The fans' perception of his failure has seen the fanbase openly reject him—including booing him off the field at the San Paolo last week.

    A report from Radio Crc (via Football Italia) stated that a tearful Insigne begged Benitez to transfer him after the match on Tuesday.  The manager turned the request down, giving him his full support for the season.  But if Benitez doesn't put him in position to succeed, how long will Insigne be able to stand the abuse?

    Gokhan Inler

    Inler was a surprise omission to the starting XI on Tuesday, and Napoli missed his passing and defensive presence.

    According to WhoScored, Inler completed 86.8 percent of his passes a year ago and added 2.9 tackles and 1.9 interceptions on the other side of the ball.  Such passing accuracy was missing in the first half of the first leg, and his defensive presence will help disrupt Bilbao's offensive movement as well.

    Also of use would be Inler's cannon of a right foot.  His threat from range can stretch the Bilbao defense and allow Benitez's forwards more room to operate.

    Gonzalo Higuain

    Sorely lacking until his equalizer, the Argentine striker continued the sluggish form that dogged him at the World Cup.

    His goal, however, was a thing of beauty.  Receiving a pass from Marek Hamsik, Higuain took the ball out of the air with his first touch, settled with his second and dribbled through two defenders with his third.  He then dribbled wide beyond Mikel Balenziaga, fired a shot across the grain and beat Iraizoz with ease.

    The score seemed to raise his spirits, and he had a bit more verve from then on out.  He's going to have to play at his best to score the goals Napoli need at the San Mames.

Manager: Athletic Bilbao

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    Ernesto Valverde did what he needed to do in the away leg.
    Ernesto Valverde did what he needed to do in the away leg.Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

    Ernesto Valverde played seven seasons at Bilbao, earning 170 caps and scoring 44 times.  This is the second season of his second stint as the team's manager.

    In his first season back at the helm, he guided Bilbao to their first Champions League place since 1998-99.  He runs a 4-2-3-1 system much like that of his opposite number, Rafa Benitez.

    His tactical work in the first match was good.  He and his team benefitted from Napoli's lack of match sharpness, but his defense also successfully stymied Napoli's attack in hostile territory—no mean feat of organization.

    What Valverde can't do now is fall into the trap of playing for a draw.  He may be at the fortress of the new San Mames, but Napoli's form can only get better, and they have an impressive array of attacking talent at their disposal.  His team will have to be just as organized on Wednesday in order to keep the Partenopei out.

Manager: Napoli

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    Benitez must not be outcoached.
    Benitez must not be outcoached.Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

    Rafa Benitez's second season in Naples hasn't started altogether smoothly.  Per Football Italia, reports sprang up early in training that winger Jose Callejon and midfielder Valon Behrami had been involved in spats with the manager.

    Atletico Madrid tried to pounce on these rumors to add Callejon to their roster in an effort to replace Diego Costa, but Benitez firmly rebuffed them, per Sky Sports.  Behrami, on the other hand, left the team and headed to Hamburg.

    He's also got the fractured relationship between Insigne and the fans to deal with and has only gotten two reinforcements with which to try to keep up with Juventus and Roma in Serie A.  Rough times indeed.

    His team's lack of match fitness hurt in the first leg, but that can only improve.  Benitez—a winner of the Champions League and Europa League—has the experience to go deep into this competition.  He knows what it takes to win at this level in an atmosphere like the San Mames.

    His love for zonal marking sometimes gets him into trouble—and Napoli have a history of weakness against set pieces going back to the Walter Mazzarri days—but his tactical setup is sound and his players have had a year to settle into them.  If the team executes, he can expect to be successful.

Recent Matchups

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    Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

    The first leg on Tuesday was the first time these two teams had met.

    History is on Athletic's side.  According to UEFA, the club are 6-1-0 (W-D-L) against Italian teams at home—including the first leg—and 7-3-4 overall.  They haven't lost their last six games against Italian opposition, going 3-3-0 overall.

    Napoli have played Spanish opposition nine times, going 4-3-2 with a record of 2-0-2 in Spain.  They have only matched up against Spanish competition in Champions League play twice, in the 2011-12 competition against Villarreal.  The fact that the Yellow Submarine were spiraling towards relegation after losing Giuseppe Rossi takes a bit of luster from the fact that they won both group-stage matches 2-0.

Key Matchup 1

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    Albiol will be key to keeping Napoli's goal closed.
    Albiol will be key to keeping Napoli's goal closed.Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

    Aritz Aduriz vs. Raul Albiol

    Aduriz has already been looked at in this article.  The man who will match up with him is Raul Albiol.  

    The Spaniard was brought in to beef up Napoli's central defense.  He was also meant to help the team's incumbent center-backs adjust to a four-man defense after playing years in Walter Mazzarri's three-man scheme.

    Albiol is excellent at pass interception and a good distributor from the back but is weak in the air—a weakness that Napoli have suffered from for years.

    Aduriz, on the other hand, is exceptional in the air.  According to WhoScored he won four of his six aerial duels against Malaga and averaged 5.6 per match last season.

    Albiol must keep Aduriz grounded, especially on set pieces.  If Aduriz manages to consistently win in the air, Napoli's defense will begin to show cracks.

Key Matchup 2

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    Marek Hamsik is the fulcrum of Napoli's midfield.
    Marek Hamsik is the fulcrum of Napoli's midfield.Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

    Marek Hamsik vs. Ander Iturraspe

    The battle for midfield is crucial to every game, and it will be up to these two men to help win that battle.

    Marek Hamsik has been a fixture in the Napoli midfield since 2007.  After the departure of Paolo Cannavaro in January he attained full captaincy.

    Hamsik's passing skills from the front of midfield are sublime.  He can pepper opposing boxes with crosses and through balls while delivering pinpoint set-piece deliveries.

    Iturraspe, on the other hand, is a holding player of some skill.  WhoScored clocked him at five tackles and five interceptions in the weekend's league game against Malaga, and he intercepted four more passes on Tuesday.

    If Iturraspe can clamp down on Hamsik's distribution, things will get difficult for the Italian side.  On the other end, if the Slovakian can give him the slip and start attacking the defense, the San Mames could get very quiet very fast.

Key Matchup 3

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    Higuain needs to fire on all cylinders in order to triumph at the San Mames.
    Higuain needs to fire on all cylinders in order to triumph at the San Mames.Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

    Gonzalo Higuain vs. Carlos Gurpegi

    Higuain needs to be more consistent for Napoli.  He did score in the first leg but was in and out before that and also missed a few chances, including hitting the woodwork.

    Matching him will be Bilbao team captain Carlos Gurpegi.  By WhoScored's count, the 34-year-old tallied two tackles, five interceptions and seven clearances, all while being called for only one foul.

    It's a matchup between young power and veteran savvy.  If Higuain can break through Gurpegi, things will get tough.  If he can do it consistently, it's game over.  If Gurpegi can stymie him, Rafa Benitez will be forced to adjust in-game.


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    Napoli has the edge in talent.  Expect it to show on the field.
    Napoli has the edge in talent. Expect it to show on the field.Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

    This is a really tough matchup to call.

    Having lost the opportunity to go to Spain in the driver's seat, Napoli need to attack.  Their strength is on the counter, and if they push forward their defense can become vulnerable.  They can play on the front foot, but every once in a while something weird happens.  

    Their September 25 match against Sassuolo—their first dropped points of last season—was an example. Napoli allowed the Neroverdi to slip in for a Simone Zaza equalizer five minutes after they opened the scoring and were unable to penetrate their defense for the remaining 70 minutes of the game.

    Napoli have the better group of players on paper.  I think that will come to bear in the second leg, but not before Bilbao show just how hard it is to beat them at home.

    This is going to be a back-and-forth match.  Napoli will push hard to score first and nullify Bilbao's away goal.  Expect them to get it before halftime.  Bilbao will match that goal, turning the game into a race for a second one.

    In the end, I think both teams will find the net a second time.  My prediction is a 2-2 draw.  There will be a mad scramble at the end, but I think the deadlock will hold and the Partenopei will walk away with the coveted spot in the group stage on away goals.