After a much-needed break from European competition, Swansea will face Napoli in the first leg of the Europa League Round of 32 this Thursday. A place in the last 16 against either Eintracht Frankfurt or Porto awaits. Our blogger GAVIN TUCKER runs us through how the Swans may get there...
By Gavin Tucker
Swansea City, having rested the vast majority of the first team in Sunday's FA Cup defeat, should be at pretty much full strength going into this landmark game.
The squad has looked revitalised under Garry Monk's stewardship, pressing higher up the field while looking to regain possession and playing with the width we have missed going forward lately.
|Shelvey played against Napoli while at Liverpool|
Jonjo Shelvey may be available after suffering a hamstring strain in the West Ham game. Interestingly, it was now Napoli boss Benitez who signed Shelvey for Liverpool towards the end of his time there, stating he was looking for "British players with passion".
Stranger still is that Jonjo's first start for Liverpool was actually against Napoli in the Europa League aged 18 in 2010. Also, perhaps most strange was his teammate for that fixture was Swans new boy David N'Gog... football has a funny way of throwing coincidences like this up!
Being at home first leg is not ideal and it will be important to get a positive result at the Liberty, a clean sheet would be a massive plus and a goal (or three) should give us a solid base in the difficult second leg on 27th February at the Stadio San Paolo.
There's also a chance we could see the long-awaited return of marvellous Michu, although it may only be a cameo appearance as it's unlikely he will be able to dive straight into a full 90 minutes.
Rafa Benitez's Napoli will make their first appearance in the Europa League this season after being harshly dumped out of their Champions League group despite impressive performances and results.
The Azzurri have been in good form of late - three straight wins including a 3-1 league victory over AC Milan and eliminating Roma 5-3 on aggregate in the two-legged Copa Italia semi-final. They currently occupy third place in Serie A, the final Champions League qualifying position.
Napoli have no major injury concerns or suspensions in their ranks going into the clash. Although top scorer Gonzalo Higuain may not make Thursday's clash after taking a knock to the back in his previous game.
You tend to know to a certain degree what to expect when facing a Benitez side. When taking over at Napoli he moved them away from the more traditional Italian formation of 3-4-3 to his favoured 4-2-3-1 set up that he has used consistently throughout his managerial career. Implementing his zonal marking system and a pretty solid defensive set up that concede few goals to good effect.
Pepe Reina is likely to feature in goal on loan from Liverpool and expect Marek Hamsik to be pulling the strings in midfield. Should Higuain miss the game, Rafa will probably opt to play Jose Callejon up top who has made a strong start since his move to Napoli from Real Madrid.
With approximately 1,700 Napoli supporters making the journey from Italy it should be a lively atmosphere. European competition under the floodlights is a special occasion and should be cherished.
After over 20 years since Swansea's last continental adventures, who knows when we could be tackling an Italian giant again. Savour it!
Napoli should hold no fear for Swansea and there is no doubt the Italians are a well drilled, tough opponent with some quality players. However we have outplayed and beaten better sides in our recent history. It was not so long ago we overcame Rafa Benitez's Chelsea side over a two-leg knockout format on route to Capital One Cup glory. Is this Napoli side any tougher than Chelsea last year?
Concentration, determination and a bit of luck and we can progress from one of the toughest draws we could have got. We are capable enough and, as cliched as it sounds, we can beat anyone on our day!
Prediction: Swansea 1-0 Napoli