Napoli boss Benitez in battle with Bilbao for Champions League place
Napoli head coach Rafa Benitez is set to put his wits against Ernesto Valverde in San Paolo, whose side Athletic Bilbao travel to Italy for their Champions League play-off first leg showdown.
The former Liverpool and Chelsea boss, although his club are 4/6 to qualify for the group stages of Europe’s elite competition, is wary of the upcoming encounter with Basque side Bilbao (6/5), and paid glowing compliments.
“Athletic Club are a complete team, they can do everything on the pitch,” the Spaniard said. “They have the advantage of having played together for many years. I envisage a very interesting, tactical match that will keep the supporters engrossed. It will be intense.”
However, Bilbao will be without star midfielder Ander Herrera, who left for Manchester United this summer. They have managed to hold on to stars such as Iker Muniain and Markel Susaeta, though, and you can back the duo at 3/1 and 7/2 respectively to score anytime.
But it is Napoli who arguably boast the better strike force, with the likes of World Cup runner-up Gonzalo Higuain and his former Real Madrid teammate Jose Callejon on their books. Argentine Higuain (4/1 to score first) knocked in 24 goals in all competitions for his side last term, while Callejon (6/4 to net anytime) managed an impressive 20.
Other attacking talent for Gli Azzurri include loanee from Swansea City Michu (11/8 in the anytime market), Dries Mertens (6/4), Marek Hamsik (13/8) and Lorenzo Insigne (7/4).
Benitez, whose side narrowly managed to qualify from a tough group in the Champions League last season, went on to say: “The play-offs are very important. Napoli have a promising future, but it will be better if we qualify. If we don’t succeed it is not the be all and end all because this can happen to a club.
“It is important to score and to defend well because we must remember that these ties are longer than 90 minutes – we have to go to Bilbao in a week.”
Napoli are odds-on 10/11 favourites to beat Bilbao (16/5), who played no European football last term, at home, with a draw priced at 5/2.
The Spanish side will be participating in the Champions League for the first time since 1998/99, where they made it to the groups, while Napoli have reached that stage for the last five seasons.
Bilbao boss Valverde said: “I do not know if there is a favourite, but if there is it is probably Napoli. They played in the Champions League last season, we haven’t been in it for 16 years.
“That wait means we have a big responsibility, and so many in Spain are confident of us. It’s a big chance, created last season, and now we have to take it. An away goal would be very important for us and we will go for it without forgetting that the second leg is to come.”