The Europa League never really gets very much attention; its matches are usually played whilst everyone else is dissecting the previous night’s Champions League results. Some teams (especially in England) don’t take the competition seriously, fielding much weaker teams, and resting their best players for the domestic fixtures instead. It’s understandable – a clubs main revenue is usually determined by their final league positioning. Regardless, the Europa League does have the ability to throw up great fixtures and especially the forthcoming two-leg clash between Napoli and Villarreal. Both clubs are rightly huge favourites with neutrals.
Napoli’s rebirth since bankruptcy has been a refreshing story. The famous club filed for bankruptcy in August of 2004, at that time they were in Serie B – and as a result were kicked out of the league. In 2005 the club was reborn and the Italian FA (FIGC) decided to reinstate the club in the 3rd tier, Serie C1. They finished the season top, and were automatically promoted to Serie B once more. The 2006/2007 is probably going to be remembered as the most famous one ever in the history of Serie B. After the Calciopoli scandal, the league table was full of names familiar to any ordinary fans of the Italian game – Juventus, Genoa, Napoli, Verona, Bologna, Brescia, Bari, and Vicenza. The 3 bigger clubs were unsurprisingly promoted – Juventus, Genoa and Napoli. Napoli’s return was greeted well, even by fans of other Italian teams. The likes of Napoli were exactly what was needed after Calciopoli’s fallout had essentially handed Internazionale the 2006/2007 scudetto in boringly predictable fashion.
Villarreal on the other hand were a club hardly known to football fans until this decade. They have no history of UEFA Cup wins, and they have certainly never had a player like Diego Maradona on their books. Villarreal were first promoted to La Liga in the 1998/1999 season, and were swiftly relegated straight after, before bouncing up once more to the top flight in their next season. After that promotion they stayed up for good and managed to build to a challenge for places in Europe after some excellent signings. It was their exploits in Europe that would gain them most attention, getting to the Semi-Finals of the Champions League under coach Manuel Pellegrini in the 2005/2006 season. Juan Roman Riquelme’s saved penalty denied Villarreal the chance of taking their game against Arsenal into extra-time in their home stadium, El Madrigal. Since then, in a league dominated by only two teams, Villarreal this season have looked the most likely to mount any sort of challenge to that dominance. Atletico Madrid, Valencia and Sevilla all seemed doomed to filling the runners up spots – so a fresh Villarreal team has been a great watch in recent times. They’ve also received glowing reviews from neutral supporters for the style of their play – excellent passing football thanks to the likes of Spanish international Santi Cazorla.
After a crazy January in the Premier League in which a striker like Andy Carroll can cost £35,000,000 one of the interesting aspects of this match (for British viewers?) will be watching both club’s young strikers. Edinson Cavani joined Napoli from Palermo at the start of this season, like many transfers in Serie A this year, the deal first begins with a one year loan spell before becoming permanent in summer. The final full figure of the transfer is believed to be a roughly £15,000,000. For that paltry amount, Cavani has given back 20 goals in 25 league games plus a further 7 goals in 8 Europa League ties. That’s truly an excellent season for any striker, and there’s still a few months to go yet for Cavani to bag even more goals.
Back in Spain, another striker is making waves. Giuseppe Rossi signed for Villarreal from Manchester United (via his club at youth level, Parma) in 2007 for a meagre £6,600,000. It was clear that United didn’t necessarily want the striker to go, allegedly making a clause in the transfer that United would have the first refusal should Villarreal decide (or be forced) to sell the nationalised Italian of New Jersey birth. Rossi was subject to an apparent bid of £35,000,000 by Tottenham Hotspur in their transfer deadline day madness, only a week after signing a new contract with his club. This season the Italian has managed 20 goals in his 33 appearances for his club.
Perhaps, one of the deciding factors of the tie could lie in defence then. Napoli have racked up a very impressive 9 clean sheets in their last 11 games. In comparison, Villarreal have only managed 4 clean sheets in their last 11 games. Will Villarreal’s defence manage to contain the likes of Cavani as well as Argentina international Ezequiel Lavezzi?
What about the recent form of both clubs? Villarreal since the start of 2011 have played 7 games, won 4 and lost 3. Admittedly one of those defeats was against Real Madrid. In their last match, a 1-0 defeat against the struggling Deportivo La Coruna, the only real absentee was Giuseppe Rossi, ruled out before kick-off with illness. Villarreal will be hoping the striker has recovered for Thursday.
Napoli’s record in 2011 is 5 wins, 1 draw, and 2 losses. Including big victories over Juventus and Roma, as well as a 4-0 thrashing over Sampdoria. Their only two defeats have come against a resurgent Internazionale under Leonardo and “The Flying Donkeys” Chievo. Their most recent win over Roma was marred in controversy as the FIGC handed the firey Ezequiel Lavezzi a 3 match domestic ban for spitting in the face of Roma player Aleandro Rosi (who returned the favour and got himself a 3 match ban too). That’s not even to mention the very contentious penalty that led to Cavani’s first goal of the night.
In the end for neutrals, it doesn’t matter too much who comes out the winner. What we’re almost certain to see is some brilliant attacking football and some great goals, maybe some controversy – and hopefully some deserved recognition for both teams.