MATCHDAY: Barcelona faces Napoli in Europa League playoffs
A look at what’s happening in European soccer on Thursday:
Barcelona makes its first appearance in the second-tier Europa League after nearly two decades playing alongside the top European clubs in the knockout rounds of the Champions League. The Catalan club hosts Napoli at Camp Nou Stadium in the first leg of one of eight playoffs to get into the last 16. It is the first time since 2003-04 that Barcelona will not be in the knockout stage of the Champions League, a tournament it won five times. It failed to advance amid a financial crisis that resulted in the departure of Lionel Messi to Paris Saint-Germain. The last time it didn’t play in the Champions League, Barcelona was eliminated in the fourth round of the then-UEFA Cup in 2004. Barcelona coach Xavi Hernández said “obviously we are upset for not being able to play in the Champions League but this is still a very important European competition.” He will be without forward Memphis Depay and likely also won’t be able to count on central defender Ronald Araújo because of muscle problems. Napoli is set to be without Matteo Politano, Hirving Lozano and Stanislav Lobotka because of injuries. The other matchups — between third-place finishers in the Champions League groups and Europa League group runners-up — are Borussia Dortmund vs. Rangers, Zenit St. Petersburg vs. Real Betis, Sheriff vs. Braga, Leipzig vs. Real Sociedad, Porto vs. Lazio, Atalanta vs. Olympiakos and Sevilla vs. Dinamo Zagreb.
EUROPA CONFERENCE LEAGUE
Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers has had a couple of months to learn about Europe’s third-tier competition, having been dismissive of it after dropping into the playoffs following a disappointing third-place finish in its Europa League group. “I have to be honest — I don’t even know what the competition is in all fairness,” Rodgers said in December. In one of eight playoff matchups over two legs, the English team will face Danish Cup holder Randers, which hasn’t played a competitive match since Dec. 12 because of a winter break that ends this weekend. Rodgers has come under some pressure at Leicester after a slump in the team’s form that included a heavy FA Cup loss to second-tier opponent Nottingham Forest, after which he criticized some of his players. The playoffs are between the third-place finisher in the Europa League and the group runners-up in the inaugural Europa Conference League. Among other standout first-leg matches, Marseille — up to second place in the French league — hosts Qarabag from Azerbaijan and Norwegian upstart Bodø/Glimt is at Scottish team Celtic.
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