The semi-final first legs of the UEFA Europa League kick off on Thursday 7th March with defending champions Sevilla taking on Fiorentina at the Estadio Ramon meanwhile dangerous underdogs Dnipro travel to the infamous Stadio San Paolo to play Rafael Benitez’s Napoli side in what will be a typically hostile and raucous atmosphere on the west coast of Italy.
Dnipro and Napoli clashed two seasons ago in the group stage of the 2012/13 UEFA Europa League when Juande Ramos was in charge of the Ukrainian club and they won the home leg by 3 goals to 1. However Napoli won the return leg 4-2. Edinson Cavani netted four goals in that game and five over the two legs against Dnipro but luckily they won’t be facing him again as he moved on to Paris Saint-Germain.
They will though have a whole host of new attacking talent to worry about though. Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuaín is the top scorer left in the competition with seven goals and will be a huge threat. Higuain is the obvious threat but also watch out for Manolo Gabbiadini who has netted twice in four European appearances; he was excellent against Wolfsburg. He may not be guaranteed a start but could make a real impact from the bench.
Dnipro have been the unfancied, dark horse of the competition. They started the competition in the third qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League meaning they have played a mammoth 16 games to make it to the semi-finals. Most are expecting this match could well prove to be one step too far for Markevych’s men but then again most were saying that in the last round too. Olympiakos FC, Ajax and Club Brugge have all fallen against them.
For what it’s worth, historically Dnipro do not match up well against Italian club sides having registered only one solitary win in eight against Italian opposition in UEFA competitions. Dnipro also lost both meetings against Inter Milan in group F in the group stage of this seasons UEFA Europa League as they qualified behind them in second place.
Although Dnipro are a live threat over the two legs it seems unlikely that they will nick a victory at Napoli. They have only won once away from home in Europe this season in eight games when they beat FK Qarabağ in this season’s group stage by a 2-1 score-line.
Dnipro currently sit second in the Ukrainian premier league. Kalinic is their leading marksmen on 12 goals whilst Seleznyov has scored 8 times; they don’t have a prolific striker in their ranks. However they do have a man in Yevhen Konoplyanka who is often linked to big clubs and is the key dangerman for them.
Napoli have not reached the semi-finals of a major UEFA tournament since they won the UEFA Cup in 1988/89. In fact no Italian club has won the trophy since the 1998/99 season. However this could be the year that changes. Napoli are in good form. They are unbeaten in 12 European home games having won 9 of them and have scored the most goals in this season’s competition.
In manager Rafael Benítez they have a hugely experienced and successful man when it comes to European football. ‘Rafa’ won the 2003/04 UEFA Cup with Valencia as well as the 2004/05 Champions League with Liverpool and in 2012/13 lifted the Europa League with Chelsea. His home record in Europe is exemplary; unbeaten in his last 24 matches on home turf as a manager in UEFA tournaments. Dnipro are not to be underestimated but you would expect Benitez to know that for sure.