Swansea – Napoli (Europa League)
The Swans welcome Napoli to Wales for the first leg of Europa League’s last 32. For the Welsh everything is new. They will be appearing in the knock-out stages of the competition for the very first time in their history. As for their new manager it will be his forth game in charge, of any team. On the opposition side a gaffer familiar to English football, Rafa Benitez, a man that has his eyes on a forth European title. Not exactly levelled ground, but then again the Welsh are used to it.
When Swansea’s board decided to sack Micheal Laudrup they looked in house for capable substitute and chose Gary Monk. It showed tremendous courage for the 34-year-old former defence to take such demanding task on, maintain Swansea in the Premier League. So far he had three games in charge and was able to experience the entire range of results. It started with a convincing victory against Cardiff (3-0) followed by a 1-1 draw with Stoke at Britannia. Then on Sunday he saw his team be sent off the FA Cup by Roberto Martinez’s Everton. Hardly anyone doubts the Swans are a talented and well organized squad that at times played entertaining football, the Big Dane made sure of that. But all recall how hard it was for them to cope with the strenuous schedule once they added European fixtures to their domestic ones. They struggled with injuries and fatigue, a natural consequence for a roster that has serious depth limitations.
Monk had high hopes Michu could be back in action against the Italian, after two months on the sidelines. However the forward experienced some swelling in the last two days in training and was pulled out. It may also be too soon for midfielder Jonjo Shelvey.
Probable line-up: Vorm – Rangel, Chico, Williams, Davies – Cañas, Guzman – Routledge, Hernandez, Dyer – Bony
Rafael Benitez is having a great first season in Italy. He was able to gather around him quality players such as Gonzalo Higuín, Raul Albiól, Fede, Camilo Zuniga, Callejón, Pandev or Lorenzo Insigne that make for an exciting team to watch. He has lead Napoli to the 3rd spot with 50 points, 4 separating them from 2nd seed Roma. On May 3rd they will battle Fiorentina for the Coppa Italia. Not bad for a first run. But he can consider himself unlucky. Were it not for Juventus’ overwhelming dominance he could still aspire for the Serie A title; were it not for a terrible draw that put Napoli in the same group as Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal he could be fighting with the big boys in Champions League. Being relegated to the second European tier with 12 points is not normal!
Benitez won his first UEFA silverware with Valencia in 2004, when it was still called UEFA Cup. One year later as Liverpool manager he was crowned European Champion, the highest moment of the Spaniard carrier. Last season, as Chelsea’s interim coach he led the Blues to the Europa League final where they beat Benfica 2-1.
Fede Fernandéz is unavailable due to suspension. Higuín, Pepe Reina and Beherami are still doubtful. If the Argentinian is ruled out Pandev should take his place. Zuniga and Mesto are the confirmed casualties.
Probable line-up: Rafael Cabral – Maggio, Albiol, Britos, Ghoulam – Inler, Dzemaili – Callejon, Hamsik, Mertens – Pandev
Swansea are clearly the under-dogs in this head-to-head but they have reached this far on their own merits. Napoli showed in Champions League group stage they belonged there, in the elite of European football. Unfortunately for them Dortmund and Arsenal were slightly better. One last novelty, it will be Swansea’s first time ever against an Italian side, against any side from the south end of the continent as a matter of fact. Maybe their Spanish contingent can be of service her. The one moving forward will cross path with either Porto or Eintracht.