Barcelona begin their Europa League campaign this Thursday as they welcome Napoli for the first leg of their Playoff matchup at Camp Nou.
The winner of the Playoff tie will advance to the Round of 16, and the away goals rule no longer exists in European competition so it will not be a huge disaster to concede against a very good Napoli side, which could mean a very open, exciting game between two Champions League quality teams.
Xavi Hernández has a couple of issues when it comes to team selection, and there is some speculation of a possible rotation in this one. Let’s see how Barça could line up on Thursday.
It continues to be a problematic time for the availability of Barcelona defenders, and Xavi will be without a crucial piece on Thursday as Ronald Araujo is expected to miss out after suffering a calf problem against Espanyol. Dani Alves has been left out of the Europa League squad, so Barça are down two starters in the backline.
Eric García’s return from injury comes at a crucial time, and he will partner up with Gerard Piqué in the center of defense. Sergiño Dest will definitely start, and the only question is whether it will be on the right or the left. If Xavi decides to give Jordi Alba a rest, Óscar Mingueza would come in at right-back pushing Dest to the left.
Is this the game when Sergio Busquets finally gets a night off? The captain continues to be untouchable under Xavi, but the month of February is busy with very tough matches and it’s hard to see Busquets playing every single game. With the second leg away from home next week and a very tough trip to Valencia next Sunday, perhaps this is the perfect opportunity to rest Busi.
If that does indeed happen, we could finally see the very exciting possibility of a Pedri-Frenkie-Gavi midfield, with De Jong playing in his best position in a big game to prove that he indeed is the permanent replacement for Busquets. Nico González has faded to the background since Pedri’s return, but he could see himself starting again if Xavi decides to rest both Busi and Pedri.
Adama Traoré has very quickly become a crucial part of this Barça team, and thanks to his obvious physical gifts there is very little reason to be worried about him starting a third game in a row. Adama (and his muscles) essentially own the right wing position, and he’ll play there once again on Thursday.
Ferran Torres will also play in the front three, but his position depends on Xavi’s decision about the third forward. Will it be Gavi on the wing with three central midfielders again? That would be unlikely if Busquets is rested, but if the captain plays then we could see a four-midfielder system for the third game in a row.
If Xavi does go with an actual forward, however, there are three options: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Luuk De Jong and Ousmane Dembélé. All three have a legitimate case to start, and I am going with least likely option in Dembélé. He will not be well-received by the Camp Nou crowd, but Xavi clearly believes in him and will eventually give the Frenchman a real chance to win the fans over. Perhaps that chance will come as soon as this Thursday.
Possible XI: Ter Stegen; Dest, Piqué, García, Alba; Pedri, F. De Jong, Gavi; Adama, Ferran, Dembélé (4-3-3)
How do YOU think Barcelona should line up against Napoli? Let us know your thoughts, predictions and teams in the comments below!