Napoli returns to Champions League set for historic season
Napoli returns to Champions League action this week well on track to have the standout season in European soccer and in the club’s entire history.
The quarterfinals of Europe's marquee club competition finally beckon for Napoli, which has a 2-0 lead from the first leg before hosting Eintracht Frankfurt in the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona on Wednesday.
Only three of the 12 teams left in the competition top their domestic leagues — Napoli, Bayern Munich and Benfica — and the 18-point lead in Serie A is by far the most dominant.
Real Madrid hosting Liverpool with a 5-2 lead is the glamor game of the four second legs remaining in the round of 16, though only Madrid of that storied pair has so much as a chance of a domestic league title.
Napoli is a lock to be Italian champion for just the third time in its history, the first since 1990, and the first time without having Maradona in the team.
Still, even with the Argentina icon, Napoli twice failed to get past the second round of the old European Cup after those 1987 and 1990 titles in Serie A.
Napoli also never advanced past the round of 16 stage in the Champions League era that began in 1992. That looks set to change Wednesday.
It is also a big step for Napoli’s veteran coach Luciano Spalletti, who has not taken a team to the Champions League quarterfinals since 2008 with Roma. This is Spalletti’s seventh try since then, though his first with Napoli after falling short with Roma, Zenit St. Petersburg and Inter Milan.
Inter, which has not been to the quarterfinals since going out at that stage as the defending champion in 2011, takes a 1-0 lead to Porto in a finely balanced game Tuesday.
Manchester City host Leipzig on Tuesday with the teams tied at 1-1.
A uniquely congested European season split in two by a break for the World Cup promised surprises and Napoli perhaps has benefited from having star players rested.
Prolific strikers Victor Osimhen and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia were not involved in Qatar because their national teams Nigeria and Georgia, respectively, did not qualify.
Eintracht’s star striker Randal Kolo Muani did go to the World Cup, almost winning the final for France with a last-minute chance, but will not play this week. Kolo Muani is suspended because of his red-card tackle in the first leg.
Also missing in Naples could be the German club’s fans who local authorities want to ban from the city following clashes in Frankfurt three weeks ago.
Eintracht won a court injunction Saturday against the ban though further legal action is expected before Wednesday.
The defending champion surely will not waste a three-goal lead against Liverpool in its own stadium.
It is unlikely, though Madrid was eliminated as the title holder four years ago when taking a three-goal beating in the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium in the round of 16. That was against a rampaging Ajax, which won 4-1 to overturn a 2-1 first-leg loss.
Liverpool won that 2019 title but no team ever overcame a three-goal deficit in the second leg away from home in the Champions League.
Liverpool perhaps could do it if the team that crushed Manchester United with six second-half goals in the Premier League a week ago shows up in Madrid. Probably not with the version that lost 1-0 at Bournemouth on Saturday.
Manchester City is unbeaten at home in the Champions League for more than four years. That run includes a 6-3 win over Leipzig in the group stage two seasons ago.
City also has also won all six home games in domestic competitions in 2023. Extending the streak to seven will send the club to the quarterfinals for the sixth straight year under coach Pep Guardiola in its quest to be European champion for the first time. Guardiola last lifted the trophy 12 years ago with Barcelona.
DRAWS ON FRIDAY
The quarterfinals draw is made Friday at UEFA headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland. It is the first stage that teams from the same country can face each other.
Pairings will also be drawn for the semifinals, plotting a path to the final on June 10 in Istanbul.
Also on Friday, draws for the remaining knockout rounds are made in the second-tier Europa League and third-tier Europa Conference League.
The round of 16, second-leg games in those competitions — involving Arsenal, Manchester United, Juventus, Roma and Shakhtar Donetsk — are played on Wednesday and Thursday. ___ More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Graham Dunbar, The Associated Press