Paris (AFP) – Real Sociedad coach Imanol Alguacil believes his side can reach the knockout stages of the Europa League for just the second time in 20 years despite a dip in form which has dropped them from the top of La Liga.
The Basques head to Napoli on Thursday and will book a place in the last 32 if they match Alkmaar’s result at winless Rijeka.
Imanol’s men ceded first place in the Spanish top-flight with Sunday’s 0-0 stalemate at Alaves, their fourth straight draw since beating Cadiz on November 22.
“We are a bit hurt, for not having won. In the team no one has doubts, neither do I, that we are capable of winning,” said Imanol, the former second-team boss in his third season in charge.
His side are the top scorers in La Liga but captain Mikel Oyarzabal, who has contributed seven of those 22 goals, is unlikely to feature for the trip to Italy after sustaining a muscle injury in the draw against Rijeka last week.
“I have my doubts, perhaps it would be risking too much, let’s see,” Imanol said.
On a positive note for Imanol, ex-Manchester City midfielder David Silva could return after pulling out of the weekend’s trip to Alaves just before kick-off with a fitness issue.
“He said he was ready to play, but in the warm-up he did not feel comfortable, something that we had planned, and we decided not to take risks and wait for Thursday,” he said.
– Zielinski the dancer –
Napoli will advance from Group F if they avoid defeat. Gennaro Gattuso’s team have lost just twice in eight games since the start of November.
On Sunday, Diego Maradona’s former side hammered Crotone 4-0 as Piotr Zielinski added a third assist of the campaign.
Despite the midfielder’s efforts, Gattuso said the Pole needs to improve in front of goal, after scoring just once in 10 matches this term.
“He has great quality and dances with the ball. To become a great player he needs to add seven or eight goals a season. He has the ability to do so,” said Gattuso.
Going into the last round of matches, 18 of the 24 places in the next round are already locked up but in addition to the three-way battle in Group F, eight other teams enter the final night of the round battling for qualificaltion.
Among them are two-time winners Feyenoord, Swiss league leaders Young Boys and Turkish club Sivasspor who could make their first appearances in the knockout stages in Europe.
Qarabag’s trip to Villarreal has been postponed as the visitors are unable to field a side due to numerous cases of Covid-19 within their squad.
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