Rafa Benitez has warned of Athletic Bilbao and made clear that Napoli’s season is not over if they don’t make the Champions League.
The Vesuviani host Athletic tomorrow evening at the San Paolo in the first leg of the Play-off round for a place in the Champions League group stages.
Ahead of that clash, Napoli’s Coach has faced the media and made clear the respect that needs to be paid to the Primera Division side, as well as the importance but not necessity that his side hold in winning the contest.
“Athletic know how to do everything - pressing, counter-attacking, possession,” Benitez has told reporters gathered today.
“They have known each other for many years. Muniain says that they do not know how to speculate with their play, that they always play their game, and I believe that too.
“They can defend, but they also pressure high up the pitch, they do many things. Tactically it will be interesting and will be played with great intensity.
“Who should we fear? We always respect the opponent, they are complete and work well. These are two strong teams, let’s see what happens tomorrow.
“We know it will be difficult, but it will be the case for both teams.”
The significance of playing the first leg at home was also discussed.
“When you play this kind of game you know that it is important not to concede goals, but that there will also be a second game.
“San Mames is a legendary stadium, but the San Paolo is also the same. I expect the atmosphere that we have seen at big games, the San Paolo must be the 12th man on the field.
“The fans need to understand that if the players make a mistake, then they will have to help them. The fans are attached to the shirt, the players are those of Napoli and must be helped, especially when they go wrong.
“We often talk about whether it is better to play the first leg at home or away, but Athletic plays more or less the same, they are not a team that waits for the opponent with 11 behind the ball.
“They have confidence in what they have been doing for year, they will not wait…”
Benitez was asked of Napoli’s preparedness for this match, with Serie A still just under two weeks away.
“Are we 100 per cent for this game? We have the experience, we want to do well tomorrow at the San Paolo so that we are more confident. This team cannot be at 100 per cent after the World Cup, many have returned to us late, but we have done our best.
“Athletic have a slight advantage at a physical level, but we have to do well in any case. I am convinced that we are at a good level, but we will see on the field.
“Higuain? He is fine, but we cannot say that he is at 100 per cent. He is a player of such quality and it may be that 80 per cent is enough for him to make the difference. He is a key player.”
Henrique, Blerim Dzemaili and Juan Zuniga are the notable absentees from Benitez’s matchday squad.
“When there is a list of 18 there is always this problem. After the World Cup some players who arrived later have trained well, like Zuniga, but some are still further ahead.”
It was put to the Coach that the importance of the game could affect the market, as well as even his future at the club.
“We have to play the game with what we have, we will try to do our best and we will see what happens.
“On these two games depends the future of the club, which is brilliant, but can be even more so if we can follow the big teams into the Champions League.
“And if Napoli don’t make it? It has been said it would be a tragedy, but Napoli has played few times in the Champions League.
“Many strong clubs are not in it at all, as we have seen with Manchester United, but we know that it is important from both the sporting and economic points of view, but we should not be in fear.
“The market may depend on the result of this clash? This game can help the city and the club, it is essential - we will try to give our all and see what happens.
“It will not change our market, it will change the perception of some players of Napoli, I say maybe, as they must be convinced of Napoli beyond this…
“And my future? If we are discussing this now, with a preliminary round to play, something is not right. The focus is on the work to be done.
“My history, even at Chelsea against the fans, has been that I have done things until the very end.”
It was put to Benitez again, though, that the club’s success in the transfer market depends on getting into the Champions League.
“The preliminary round is crucial from an economic and image point of view, but that does not mean that we cannot grow the same without the Champions League.
“In any case there is the Scudetto, the Coppa Italia and Europa League. My experience is in playing to the end, not in thinking about what happens if I lose.
“Athletic says they have nothing to lose, yet for us it will be a tragedy. I do not hide the fact that it is essential, but it is not the end of the club.
“There are youngsters here and we can grow a lot. Each game is important, but you must be prepared for the future.
“We have to be positive, we have players of the highest quality and of international level.”
The 54-year-old was asked if his response was an attempt to lessen the pressure on his players, or because he believes they are not yet 100 per cent.
“You have to explain where we are, the physical differences, we cannot say that we have to win by force.
“If we lose, what happens? We withdraw from the League, Cup and Europa League? I am convinced that if we play like we did with Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, then we can beat anyone, but this is football and a ball can enter the net or not - the important thing is to have confidence.”