Napoli vs Athletic Bilbao preview

August 18, 2014
By: Nemanja Lazarevic

Napoli vs ArsenalArguably the most interesting tie in the Champions League play-offs will see Italian giants Napoli battle Athletic Bilbao, the pride of the Basque country, for one place in the group stages.

After pushing Juventus all the way the previous season, the Azzurri just couldn’t keep up with the Bianconeri and AS Roma last term, and they eventually had to settle for a third-place finish.

Chances are nobody at the club was too happy when they were pitted against Athletic Bilbao in the Champions League play-offs, but Napoli have been made 1.80 (4/5) favourites to win the first leg.

The Azzurri were not too busy in the summer transfer window, having recruited Michu, Koulibaly and Andujar, while Pepe Reina was the only notable player to leave.

With quite a few of his players taking part at the 2014 World Cup, Rafael Benitez was not exactly able to prepare his team in the best possible way, losing the final warm-up game to Paris Saint-Germain.

Nonetheless, the Spaniard has plenty of options in all areas of the pitch ahead of the Athletic Bilbao clash, but it remains to be seen whether he will take the risk with several key players who are not yet fully fit.

The good news is there are absolutely no injury worries at the moment, with fit-again Rafael Cabral set to start in goal.

Probable starting line-up (4-2-3-1): Rafael – Maggio, Koulibaly, Albiol, Ghoulam – Jorginho, Inler – Callejon, Hamsik, Insigne – Higuain.

Athletic Bilbao fought bravely last season to achieve a top 4 finish in Spanish La Liga, but the Champions League draw was extremely harsh on them having pitted them against star-studded Napoli.

The only positive is that the squad have undergone virtually no changes, with only Ander Herrera leaving for Manchester United, but many will agree that Benat Etxebarria is a worthy replacement for the talented footballer.

Los Leones did not impress in pre-season, but they did record good results in the final warm-up games, beating Borussia M’gladbach before sharing spoils with Olympiakos.

The fact all key players have been present throughout the pre-season training could give them an advantage over Napoli, so bear in mind Athletic are available at 2.25 (5/4) to qualify for the next stage.

Boss Ernesto Valverde has already decided on the 21 players to take to Naples, with Ion Aurtenetxe, Kike Sola and Gaizka Toquero remaining in Spain.

Versatile midfielder Oscar De Marcos will be preferred to Andoni Iraola on the right flank, while there are no surprises in other areas of the team.

Probable starting line-up (4-2-3-1): Iraizoz – De Marcos, Gurpegui, Laporte, Balenziaga – Mikel Rico, Iturraspe – Susaeta, Benat, Muniain – Aduriz.

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