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Preview: Napoli - Villarreal

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Gametime: 19:00 hours Thursday (1 PM EST in US)

Location: Stadio San Paolo, Napoli, Italy

TV: Canal+ in Spain; no US channels are picking the game up that I'm aware of.

Just as in the Copa del Rey, the blind draw for the round-of-32 in the Europa League has not been kind to Villarreal. Not that there are too many easy matches at this point, but Villarreal-Napoli would be a worthy quarterfinal or semifinal the way the teams have been playing in their respective leagues this year, or at least in Villarreal's case, have played until recently.

Although the teams offer a contrast in styles, the statistics in their respective leagues have been quite similar. There are other commonalities as well:

In a league historically dominated by teams from the north, SSC Napoli was the first southern team to win the scudetto (in 1961-62). Their heyday was in the late 1980s, when Diego Maradona led them to two Serie A titles. (The city council, in fact, has asked that the stadium be renamed after Maradona, but Italian law requires him to be dead for ten years first. Probably just as well, as the last time he visited Italy, this happened...)

Vila-real, of course, is from the Valencian Community, removed from the traditional strong footballing areas of Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Madrid. Sr. Roig didn't rescue Villarreal from bankruptcy, but he did rescue them from obscurity. When i ciucciarelli won its first Serie A title, el submarino amarillo was celebrating promotion from the Tercera Division for only the second time in its history. And of course, South Americans Riquelme and Forlán were pivotal players in the team's best seasons.

Even on the the non-footballing side, there are some communalities. Napoli: home of pizza (h/t to jackson) and Capodimonte porcelain. Vila-real: paella and production of ceramic tiles. Forget penalties, maybe a pizza/paella cookoff should decide the tie....

Let's move on to the teams, shall we? Until last weekend, when they defeated Roma, Napoli had not beaten a good team on the road in Serie A. At home, they have done pretty well, losing only to Chievo and Milan and defeating Sampdoria and Roma (they haven't played Inter, Lazio, or Udinese at home yet, the teams immediately behind them in the table). The same mostly can be said for Villarreal; they have a quality win away against Espanyol but generally have struggled on the road, while (the Levante match excepted) they have done very well at home.

Both teams also have relied on a fairly small squad, roughly 13-14 players deep. One difference to note between the two teams is the age at the back. Napoli's defenders and keeper are all in their late 20s to early 30s; Villarreal has Marchena and Capdevila over 30, but also 20-year-olds Musacchio and Mario. A big difference is in the formation: Napoli starts three at the back (generally Campagnaro, Cannavaro, and Aronica) and essentially plays a 3-4-2-1, with Cavani up top and Hamsik and Lavezzi behind him. Villarreal, of course, has generally played a 4-4-2 with the double pivote.

Any discussion of Napoli danger men has to start with Edinson Cavani. After scoring 14 and 13 goals for Palermo the past two seasons, the Uruguayan leads Serie A with 20 tallies in the league. He would be the first player for the Partenopei since Maradona to lead the league in goals. Add in another 7 goals in the Europa League so far, including vital injury-time strikes in both of the group games against Steaua Bucharest. Without those, Napoli would not be here. Cavani is 6 feet and thus a danger from set pieces, and his finishing in open play has been lethal.

Looking at Cavani's goal total, you might think this Napoli side is something of a swashbuckling outfit, but not really. Like all Italian teams, they play a tight, technical game, with a lot of physical challenges to players on the ball. Cavani sometimes will run at the center of the defense, but more often it's Lavezzi and Hamsik who do much of the work in the attacking end. They score occasionally themselves, but they specialize in getting the ball to Cavani in dangerous positions. The keys for Villarreal will be to defend set pieces well, for the midfield to at least negate some of what Lavezzi and Hamsik do to start counterattacks, and for the central defenders--who I hope will include Musacchio-- to keep on the proper side of Cavani at all times and not let him split them with runs through the middle. And I would caution as I did on Monday: Cavani scores LOTS of late goals.

As for Villarreal, it may be that the recent setbacks to Depor and Levante owe more to injuries among the Submarine's strikeforce than anything else---certainly that's the party line at El Madrigal this week---but as I write this, we still do not know if Giuseppe Rossi will be fully recovered from his flu bug or how many minutes Marco Ruben has in him. And so far, Nilmar has not shown the sort of form he had before his injury, though he does appear to be getting back to fitness. In the midfield, Bruno's knee has been troubling him, and Senna has not played 90 minutes in over a month, and while Marchena has returned to the defense, he clearly has lost a step. In spite of all of these excuses, what was unforgivable at the Riazor was a lack of intensity and effort, and Coach Garrido clearly has demanded more from his team in this match.

European games usually are tight in the knockout stages: I think (assuming Rossi can play, and signs via twitter this morning are that he's much better) Villarreal will have to look for opportunities for quick attacks to break down the Napoli defense; I think Napoli will be quite happy to sit back and break up our possession play. The long diagonal passes Santi Cazorla and Borja Valero can play to Rossi, who then can bring Nilmar into the attack, are key. Santi has already said that we may need to sit back and soak up some pressure, then try to get behind their defense with counterattacks, and that makes sense to me. On defense, Villarreal has to watch out for set pieces, of course, but also keep Hamšík in check so he can't feed Cavani in dangerous positions. If the defense plays well, I frankly don't see Napoli scoring a lot, so scoring an away goal will be important. Napoli hasn't traveled well in the Europa League or Serie A, so a one-goal loss here is not awful, with a scoring draw even better, and I think that's how Villarreal will be thinking about this game.

It should be an enjoyable game to watch, though hard to handicap. Serie A doesn't look to be as strong this year as it often has been; Napoli lost in the group stage 3-1 to Liverpool at Anfield and drew 0-0 at home, both times playing essentially first-team lineups. And for the matter, Napoli was the only one of the four Italian teams in the group stages to make it to the next round, though Getafe and Atlético Madrid didn't exactly do Spain proud either, so it's hard to know what to read into that. The bookies seem unconvinced as well; they do have Napoli as slight favorites for this match, but the odds on a Villarreal win or a draw aren't that long either.

If we had everyone at 100%, I would feel pretty confident of grabbing a result. Since we don't, I don't think it will be a high-scoring contest; it should be tight, but hopefully free of the ridiculous aggression that Milan displayed yesterday against Tottenham. A 1-1 draw would be a nice result to take back to El Madrigal, so I'll make that my prediction, with Rossi scoring for us to cancel out Cavani. Endavant Villarreal!