Barcelona clash with Napoli top of Europa League play-offs

Barcelona players celebrate goal, Reuters

AFP – Barcelona’s new reality will hit home on Thursday when they play in Europe’s second-tier club competition for the first time in 18 years as Napoli visit Camp Nou in the Europa League.

The Catalans exited the Champions League in the group stage with just two goals scored in six matches, with the arrival of Xavi Hernandez not enough to revive their fortunes in a competition they have won five times.

A meeting with a Napoli side currently battling for the Serie A title would be worthy of the continent’s elite club competition, and indeed the sides met in the Champions League round of 16 there. barely two years old.

Yet Barca instead face a real challenge in this play-off just to qualify for the last 16 as they try to salvage some pride in Europe and go all the way to the final in Sevilla in May.

“It’s not a favorable draw. It’s one of the toughest teams we could have faced, a Champions League-level team,” Xavi said during the draw.

The Catalans, who sit fourth in La Liga 15 points behind leaders Real Madrid, had been in the Champions League round of 16 in each of the past 17 seasons, last missing out in 2003-04 when they played in the UEFA Cup. .

Barcelona weren’t the only top names to be knocked out of the Champions League early, with Borussia Dortmund also falling out of the Europa League.

The Germans will face Scottish champions Rangers in the first leg at Signal Iduna Park as the home side wait to see if Erling Haaland will feature.

The Norwegian, who has scored 23 goals in 21 games in all competitions this season, missed Dortmund’s last two outings against Bayer Leverkusen and Union Berlin in the Bundesliga.

Sevilla have also dropped out of the Champions League, but that could suit a club that have won the Europa League or its predecessor, the UEFA Cup, a record six times, most recently in 2020.

– More away goals –

They will also be buoyed by the prospect of reaching the final at their own stadium as they entertain Dinamo Zagreb in the play-offs.

There is English Premier League representation in the new Europa Conference League play-offs, with Leicester City taking on Danish side Randers.

Celtic will face Norwegian champions Bodo/Glimt who have not played a competitive game since the end of their domestic campaign two months ago.

“Bodo is similar to us when we enter our Champions League qualifiers as they are in pre-season mode at the minute,” Celtic boss Ange Postecoglou told Scottish media.

“It could potentially work both ways. We have the match sharpness, but they could have a freshness about them.”

The Conference League includes other former European champions PSV Eindhoven and Marseille, who will face Israeli Maccabi Tel Aviv and Azerbaijani Qarabag respectively.

The second legs of both competitions will be played next week and, as in the Champions League, the away goals rule has been scrapped, meaning ties will go straight to extra time and penalties if tied at the end of the return match.

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