A preview of what’s happening in European football on Thursday:
Barcelona are making their first appearance in the second-tier Europa League after nearly two decades of playing alongside Europe’s top clubs in the Champions League knockout stages. The Catalan club host Napoli at the Camp Nou stadium in the first leg of one of eight qualifiers to progress to 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 he has won five times. He failed to progress amid a financial crisis that saw Lionel Messi leave for Paris Saint-Germain. The last time he didn’t play in the Champions League, Barcelona were knocked out in the fourth round of the then UEFA Cup in 2004. Barcelona coach Xavi Hernández said “obviously we are upset about Not being able to play in the Champions League but it remains a very important European competition. He will be without striker Memphis Depay and will probably not be able to count on central defender Ronald Araújo either due to muscle problems. Napoli are likely to be without of Matteo Politano, Hirving Lozano and Stanislav Lobotka due to injuries.The other clashes – between the third in the Champions League groups and the runners-up in the Europa League group – are Borussia Dortmund against Rangers, Zenit St. Petersburg against Real Betis, Sheriff against Braga, Leipzig against Real Sociedad, Porto against Lazio, Atalanta against Olympiakos and Sevilla against Dinamo Zagreb.
EUROPA CONFERENCE LEAGUE
Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers has had a few months to learn about Europe’s third-tier competition, having dismissed it after dropping out of the playoffs after a disappointing third place in their Europa League group. “I have to be honest – I don’t even know what the competition is honestly,” Rodgers said in December. Haven’t played a competitive game since December 12 due to a winter break which ends this weekend.Rodgers have come under some pressure at Leicester after a fall in team form which included a heavy FA defeat Cup against second-tier opponents Nottingham Forest, after they criticized some of their players. The playoffs are between the third in the Europa League and the group runners-up in the first Europa Conference League. Among other notable first legs, Marseille – up to second place in the French League – hosts Qarabag of Azerbaijan and Norwegian upstart Bodø/Glimt are in Scotland’s Celtic side.
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