European nights are back in club football, but not quite in the way Barcelona would have wanted.
While their rivals Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid take on Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United, respectively, the Blaugranas will line up against Napoli in the Europa League qualifiers on Thursday night.
It is not expected to be an easy game, however. The Naples outfit are one of the best teams in Europe this season. They have scored 46 goals in the Serie A (5th best) while conceding just 17 (best in the league, third-best across the top five leagues).
Barcelona’s fortunes have changed under Xavi, and they will play this game on the back of a 4-2 win vs Atletico Madrid and a 2-2 draw vs Espanyol. With the first game at Camp Nou, any misstep could cost them dearly.
The journey towards the Europa League trophy starts with the first starting XI put out by Xavi. With Ronald Araujo out injured, Eric Garcia is expected to be the chosen centre-half alongside Gerard Pique. Marc-Andre ter Stegen will start in goal.
Jordi Alba is the club’s only left-back, and with a goal and assist in consecutive games, he will almost certainly retain his place in that role. Without Dani Alves in the mix for the Europa League, Sergino Dest could get the chance to cement more trust under Xavi at right-back.
Without Araujo, Barça’s backline is severely depleted, and fans have been calling for Frenkie de Jong to be deployed as the third centre-back. However, after being subbed off at half-time vs Espanyol, we expect the Dutchman to be benched for this game.
As such, Gavi could be dropped from the left-wing to left central midfield, where Pedri is the likeliest to partner him. There are little to no doubts over Sergio Busquets‘ place in defensive midfield.
The forward line is where things get interesting. With two assists in two games, Adama Traore will probably get his European debut vs Napoli. His battle on the wing vs Mario Rui will be interesting to watch.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is expected to get his first start in the garnet and blue tomorrow as a ‘Europa League specialist’, while Ferran Torres might round off the lineup on the left-wing.
Predicted Barça XI: ter Stegen; Dest, Pique, Garcia, Alba; Pedri, Busquets, Gavi; Adama, Aubameyang, Torres
Off the bench
In the event that Frenkie de Jong does not get to start, we could see him come off the bench in the last third of the game. The same goes for Nico Gonzalez, who has featured in every single game under Xavi.
Luuk de Jong has been the top scorer in the new manager’s regime and scored the last-minute equaliser against Espanyol on the weekend. Should Barcelona need a focal point in attack, the Dutchman could get some minutes.
Oscar Mingueza is one of the three centre-halves that is fit for this game and could be brought on if and when Barça have a lead to defend.
One of Martin Braithwaite, Ez Abde, or Ferran Jutgla will probably get the chance to come on in the event the hosts need a goal.