Paris (AFP) – Barcelona’s new reality will hit home on Thursday when they play in Europe’s second-tier club competition for the first time in 18 years as Napoli visit the Camp Nou in the Europa League.
The Catalans crashed out of the Champions League in the group stage with just two goals scored in six matches, the arrival of Xavi Hernandez not enough to revive their fortunes in a competition they have won five times.
A meeting with a Napoli side currently fighting for the Serie A title would be worthy of the continent’s elite club competition, and indeed the sides met in the last 16 of the Champions League just two years ago.
Yet Barca instead face a real challenge in this play-off tie just to make it through to the last 16 as they try to salvage some pride in Europe and go all the way to the final in Seville in May.
“It is not a favourable draw. They are one of the toughest sides we could have faced, a Champions League-level team,” Xavi said when the draw was made.
The Catalans, who lie fourth in La Liga a huge 15 points behind leaders Real Madrid, had appeared in the knockout rounds of the Champions League in each of the last 17 seasons, last missing out in 2003-04 when they played in the UEFA Cup.
Barcelona were not the only high-profile name to be knocked out of the Champions League prematurely, with Borussia Dortmund also dropping down into the Europa League.
The Germans will face Scottish champions Rangers with the first leg at the Signal Iduna Park as the home side wait to see if Erling Haaland will play.
The Norwegian, scorer of 23 goals in 21 games in all competitions this season, has missed Dortmund’s last two outings against Bayer Leverkusen and Union Berlin in the Bundesliga.
Sevilla also dropped out of the Champions League but that might suit a club who have won the Europa League or its predecessor, the UEFA Cup, a record six times including most recently in 2020.
– Away goals no more –
They will also be driven by the prospect of going all the way to the final in their own stadium as they entertain Dinamo Zagreb in the play-offs.
There is English Premier League representation in the play-offs of the new Europa Conference League, with Leicester City taking on Danish outfit Randers.
Celtic will play the Norwegian champions Bodo/Glimt who have not played a competitive match since wrapping up their domestic campaign two months ago.
“Bodo are similar to us when we go in to our Champions League qualifiers as they are in pre-season mode at the minute,” Celtic boss Ange Postecoglou told Scottish media.
“That could potentially work both ways. We have the match sharpness, but they could have a freshness about them.”
The Conference League features other former European champions in the shape of PSV Eindhoven and Marseille, who take on Israel’s Maccabi Tel-Aviv and Qarabag of Azerbaijan respectively.
The second legs in both competitions will be played next week and, like in the Champions League, the away goals rule has been scrapped, meaning ties will go straight to extra time and penalties if level at the end of the return match.
Fixtures on Thursday (2000 GMT unless stated)
Europa League knockout round play-offs, first legs
Barcelona (ESP) v Napoli (ITA) (1745 GMT)
Zenit Saint Petersburg (RUS) v Real Betis (ESP) (1745 GMT)
Borussia Dortmund (GER) v Rangers (SCO) (1745 GMT)
Sheriff Tiraspol (MDA) v Braga (POR) (1745 GMT)
Sevilla (ESP) v Dinamo Zagreb (CRO)
Atalanta (ITA) v Olympiakos (GRE)
RB Leipzig (GER) v Real Sociedad (ESP)
Porto (POR) v Lazio (ITA)
Europa Conference League knockout round play-offs, first legs
PSV Eindhoven (NED) v Maccabi Tel-Aviv (ISR) (1745 GMT)
Fenerbahce (TUR) v Slavia Prague (CZE) (1745 GMT)
Midtjylland (DEN) v PAOK (GRE) (1745 GMT)
Rapid Vienna (AUT) v Vitesse Arnhem (NED) (1745 GMT)
Marseille (FRA) v Qarabag (AZE)
Leicester City (ENG) v Randers (DEN)
Celtic (SCO) v Bodo/Glimt (NOR)
Sparta Prague (CZE) v Partizan Belgrade (SRB)
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