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Barcelona clash with Napoli heads Europa League play-offs

Barcelona’s new reality will become apparent on Thursday as they play in Europe’s second-class club competition for the first time in 18 years, while Napoli visit the Camp Nou in the Europa League.

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The Catalans crashed out of the Champions League group stage with just two goals in six games. The arrival of Xavi Hernandez was not enough to revive their fortunes in a competition they have won five times.

A meeting with a Napoli team currently fighting for the Serie A title would be worthy of the continent’s elite club competition, and indeed the teams met in the last 16 of the Champions League just two years ago.

But Barca instead face a real challenge in this play-off game, just to make the last 16 as they try to salvage some pride in Europe and make it all the way to the final in Seville in May.

“It is not a favorable draw. They are one of the most difficult teams we could have faced, a team at Champions League level,” said Xavi when the draw took place.

Barcelona, ​​who are fourth in La Liga, by a massive 15 points behind leader Real Madrid, had appeared in the knockout rounds of the Champions League in each of the last 17 seasons, most recently missing out in 2003-04 when they played in the UEFA Cup.

Barcelona wasn’t the only high-profile name to be knocked out of the Champions League prematurely, and Borussia Dortmund dropped to the Europa League as well.

The Germans take on Scottish champions Rangers with the first leg at Signal Iduna Park as the home side wait to see if Erling Haaland will play.

The Norwegian, who has scored 23 goals in 21 games in all competitions this season, has missed Dortmund’s last two appearances against Bayer Leverkusen and Union Berlin in the Bundesliga.

Sevilla also dropped out of the Champions League, but that might suit a club that has won the Europa League or its predecessor, the UEFA Cup, a record six times, most recently in 2020.

– No more away goals –

They will also be driven by the prospect of going all the way to the final at their home stadium as they entertain Dinamo Zagreb in the play-offs.

There is a representation of the English Premier League in the play-offs of the new Europa Conference League, with Leicester City taking on the Danish side Randers.

Celtic will face Norwegian champions Bodo/Glimt who have not played a competitive game since the conclusion of their domestic campaign two months ago.

“Bodo looks like us when we go to our Champions League qualifiers as they are currently in the pre-season,” Celtic boss Ange Postecoglou told Scottish media.

“That could potentially work both ways. We have the sharpness of the game, but they can have a freshness about them.”

The Conference League features other former European champions in the form of PSV Eindhoven and Marseille, who will face Israelis Maccabi Tel-Aviv and Azerbaijan Qarabag respectively.

The first legs in both competitions will be played next week and, as in the Champions League, the away goals rule has been removed, meaning a draw at the end of the return leg goes straight to extra time and penalties.

Matches on Thursday (2000 GMT unless otherwise noted)

Europa League knockout round play-offs, first legs

Barcelona (ESP) v Napoli (ITA) (1745 GMT)

Zenit Saint Petersburg (RUS) v Real Betis (ESP) (1745 GMT)

Borussia Dortmund (GER) v Rangers (SCO) (1745 GMT)

Sheriff Tiraspol (MDA) v Braga (POR) (1745 GMT)

Seville (ESP) – Dinamo Zagreb (CRO)

Atalanta (ITA) v Olympiacos (GRE)

RB Leipzig (GER) – Real Sociedad (ESP)

Porto (POR) v Lazio (ITA)

Europa Conference League Knockout Round Playoffs, First Legs

PSV Eindhoven (NED) v Maccabi Tel-Aviv (ISR) (1745 GMT)

Fenerbahce (TUR) v Slavia Prague (CZE) (1745 GMT)

Midtjylland (DEN) v PAOK (GRE) (1745 GMT)

Rapid Vienna (AUT) v Vitesse Arnhem (NED) (1745 GMT)

Marseille (FRA) v Qarabag (AZE)

Leicester City (ENG) v Randers (DEN)

Celtic (SCO) v Bodo/Glimt (NOR)

Sparta Prague (CZE) v Partizan Belgrade (SRB)

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