The UEFA Europa League is set to return with knockout round playoffs as Champions League frequenter Barcelona will take on Italy’s Napoli on Thursday.
In December 2021, Barcelona exited the UEFA Champions League Group E after finishing third behind Bayern Munich and Benfica, a rare habit for the Spanish club.
Following 17 successive years in the Champions League, Barcelona did not progress from their group in the 2021 autumn.
So third-place Barcelona joined the Europa League playoffs prior to the Round of 16 – a huge disappointment for the club that won the Champions League title in 2011 and 2015.
Barca last played in Europe’s second-flight tournament in the 2003-04 season. The Spanish team were eliminated by Scotland’s Celtic on a 1-0 aggregate in the UEFA Cup last 16 in 2004.
The UEFA Cup was rebranded the UEFA Europa League in the 2009-10 season.
On the other side, Napoli qualified for the 2022 playoffs after they were the Europa League Group C runners-up behind Spartak Moscow.
On Thursday, Barcelona will face Napoli at their home ground Camp Nou. The first leg game in Spain will kick off at 1745GMT.
Barcelona and Napoli have no suspended players for this match.
But longtime Barcelona defender Gerard Pique, 35, will miss next match if he was booked in the first leg. The same goes for Napoli’s Senegalese central defender Kalidou Koulibaly.
The second leg match will be played on Feb. 24 in Naples’ Diego Armando Maradona Stadium.
The winning team of the Barcelona vs. Napoli tie will make their way to the Europa League round of 16. The losing side will exit Europe.
Eight victor teams in the playoffs will join the last 16 clubs including Turkiye’s Galatasaray, who are the 2000 UEFA Cup champions.
Argentine football legend Maradona’s ex-clubs Barcelona and Napoli previously met in the Champions League last 16 in 2020 or the viral year.
In the first leg in February, Barcelona took a 1-1 draw in Naples. Then, COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the UEFA tournament for several months.
In August 2020, Barcelona beat Napoli 3-1 in the second leg at Camp Nou to reach Champions League quarterfinals.
Barcelona adds Aubameyang, Torres, Traore in mid-season
In the 2021-22 mid-season transfer window, Barcelona signed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Arsenal, Ferran Torres from Manchester City, and Adama Traore from Wolverhampton Wanderers to strengthen their squad.
Aubameyang and Torres signed multi-year deals each with Barcelona while Traore joined the Spanish team on a half-season loan deal.
The Spanish club, meanwhile, lost Sergio Aguero and Philippe Coutinho.
In December, Aguero, who played as a forward, retired from football due to a heart condition.
After complaining of chest pain during a Spanish La Liga match against Alaves in October, the Argentine national, 33, was diagnosed with cardiac arrhythmia.
Brazilian midfielder Coutinho moved to Aston Villa on loan from Barcelona in January.
Meanwhile in the same transfer window, Napoli’s Greek central defender Kostas Manolas returned to his former club Olympiacos after spending many seasons with Italian Serie A clubs Roma and Napoli.
Playoffs 1st leg fixtures:
Barcelona (Spain) – Napoli (Italy)
Borussia Dortmund (Germany) – Rangers (Scotland)
Zenit (Russia) – Real Betis (Spain)
Sheriff (Moldova) – Braga (Portugal)
Sevilla (Spain) – Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia)
RB Leipzig (Germany) – Real Sociedad (Spain)
Atalanta (Italy) – Olympiacos (Greece)
Porto (Portugal) – Lazio (Italy)
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