While those Europa League Thursday nights in have always lived in the shadow of the Champions League, this second tier of European competition remains a respectable and prestigious tournament. The prize may not have big ears, but numerous decorated clubs have claimed it in the past.
With Inter and Napoli joining Lazio in the Round of 32 this evening, both Italian clubs will be taking the initiative to reach the final in Baku. Anything less than a deep run will look like a complete failure for two Italian football giants.
However, the Nerazzurri and Partenopei will be entering a tournament with some very competitive and intelligent sides. There is immense pressure for Arsenal and Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea, who are the other present juggernauts eyeing this edition’s Europa League trophy.
Then there is Lazio, the Italian compatriots looking to make amends after last season’s elimination in the quarter-finals. Other lethal competitors are Sevilla, Bayer Leverkusen, Eintracht Frankfurt, Villarreal, Real Betis and a seasoned Shakhtar Donetsk. So it won’t be straightforward for Inter and Napoli.
After returning to the Champions League scene in emphatic fashion, claiming six points in their first two group fixtures, Inter still managed to squander a realistic opportunity to reach the second stage. On paper, the three-time Champions League winners should have no difficulty getting past their last-32 opponent Rapid Wien. But with Mauro Icardi recently being stripped of Inter’s captaincy and pulling out of the team travelling to Vienna, it will be interesting to see how the Nerazzurri and Luciano Spalletti will respond on the pitch.
However, Inter will have Lautaro Martinez at their disposal to reinforce the frontline. The 21-year-old Argentine has mostly played second fiddle to Icardi so far this season, but with the promising forward bagging a winner against Napoli in December and a disciplined Parma last week, Martinez will be relishing this opportunity on the European stage.
Inter’s midfield will need to have more creative spark if it is to provide Martinez with any service upfront. Over the last couple of months, the Nerazzurri have looked far too pragmatic in the middle – passing the ball too slow and back to the defenders on numerous occasions.
Playing in a rigid style will work in favour of Rapid Wien, who didn’t concede a single goal at home in their Europa League group stage games. Internazionale’s pragmatic approach may be forgiving in Italy, but in European competition, it has only won them one away game in their last 10.
As for Napoli, they will be wondering what could have been if it wasn’t for that draw against Red Star Belgrade, or even if Arkadiusz Milik hadn’t missed in the final minutes at Anfiel. But with the Partenopei possessing an experienced Coach in European competition, there is a golden opportunity to push for their first silverware since the 2014 Supercoppa. While the Neapolitans put all their eggs in the Serie A basket last campaign under Maurizio Sarri, they should now do the exact opposite in going all out for the Europa League. And this time, they have Carlo Ancelotti – a manager who is highly flexible in rotating his players.
This current Ciucciarelli side is capable of beating any team in Europe, as we witnessed when they defeated Liverpool at the San Paolo. But this is the thing, Napoli produces mesmerising performances in Naples and then often go missing in away fixtures. Recently, the southern Italian club has been underwhelming on the road – experiencing two losses and two draws. To make matters worse, their attackers Dries Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne and Arkadiusz Milik haven’t been as prolific on their travels.
The Partenopei will need to ensure they eliminate these recent goalscoring hiccups and maximise their attractive style of play when they face FC Zurich in the first leg of their last 32 clash. The Swiss side will make no light work for the Neapolitans, as they do set up quite firmly in defence. If Napoli can replicate those European nights at the San Paolo – like the 1-0 win against Liverpool – in away fixtures, then this capable Neapolitan side could pose a serious threat to those eyeing Europa League glory.