As the season’s UEFA Europa League quarter-finals are set to get underway, Dieter Hecking‘s VfL Wolfsburg side host Rafael Benitez‘s Napoli team in one of four interesting match-ups.
The hosts prepare for the first of five games in the space of a fortnight across three competitions for the Bundesliga outfit. Sandwiched between their two-legged tie against the Italians, they face Schalke hoping to increase their grip in second place. Then after that, they face a tough test in the shape of in-form Borussia Monchengladbach before a DFB-Pokal semi-final fixture against Arminia Bielefeld.
Hecking had this to say: “We’re concentrating on our future engagements, the crossroads of the season. The next five matches are the most beautiful and exciting of the season. We cannot stop, we have to look forward every game. At the end of the season we’ll see where we are. For a week now I have not had a cup of cappuccino form one of the two Italian cafes in my village. They are true Napoli fans. But if we win then I will get my coffee free for the rest of the year. If not, I will have to pay an extra Euro for every cup.”
STAT: The last time Wolfsburg reached the quarter-finals of the Europa League was five years ago in 2010, where they were knocked out 3-1 by eventual runners-up Fulham, who lost to Atlético Madrid in the final. Since then, The Cottagers have been relegated from the Premier League and are struggling at the bottom end of the Championship whilst Atléti are flying high in the competitive rigours of regular Champions League football.
Benitez, who celebrates his 55th birthday on Thursday, said: “The plan is always the same – it doesn’t matter what has happened before, it is the next match that counts. We have to be at our best to get a good result and we know the difficult task that awaits. Wolfsburg have a physically strong team so we have to look at ourselves, show our quality on the pitch. Looking at the character, this is perhaps the best team I’ve ever had – they are excellent professionals. My team are ready for this and hopefully we’ll have the killer instinct which is missing sometimes. Many of Wolfsburg’s players could easily slot into our team. They have a lot of quality and that’s why we will show them as much respect as they deserve.”
STAT: Napoli have won NONE of their last five away matches from the Stadio San Paolo, scoring one goal in the process. They currently sit seven points behind AS Roma in third meaning that winning this year’s competition represents their biggest opportunity of qualifying for the Champions League in the 2015-16 season.
Both teams are set to be relatively unchanged for Thursday’s clash from their respective victories on the weekend. Aaron Hunt is sidelined for Wolfsburg with a ligament injury, whilst Benitez will miss Juan Zúniga (knee) and loanee striker Michu (ankle) for the fixture.
Predicted starting line-ups:
Wolfsburg – Benaglio, Vierinha, Naldo, Knoche, Rodríguez, Guilavogui, Gustavo, Schurrle, Perisic, de Bruyne and Dost.
Napoli – Andújar, Strinic, Albiol, Koulibaly, Maggio, Inler, Gargano, Callejón, Hamsik, Mertens and Higuain.
Prediction: Wolfsburg victory. The hosts should have too much quality for Benitez’s boys, because even despite Benitez’s shining CV, Napoli have been fairly inconsistent this season and scraped through a few wins already in the 2014-15 campaign. Ricardo Rodriguez, Kevin de Bruyne and Bas Dost all provide a real attacking threat, something that on paper seems much too hard to quell for the whole 90 minutes. With that being said, nothing is simple in football. Napoli beat Fiorentina on the weekend and the likes of Marek Hamsik, Dries Mertens and Jose Callejón – not even mentioning Gonzalo Higuain – suggest this will be an intriguing match for sure.