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Aug 18, 2014

Plenty on the line in Napoli's UCL playoff tie

Alejandro Moreno gives his prediction for Napoli-Athletic Bilbao.

"It's not long now until we hear that tune again," tweeted Napoli's stadium announcer, an excited Decibel Bellini.

The emcee known throughout the world for his spine-tingling call and response routines when the likes of GON-ZA-LO HI-GUA-IN sgonfia la rete [make the net bulge] wasn't referring to the latest summer hit to emerge from the city's flourishing rap scene. Nothing from the likes of CoSang's Luche, nor Rocco Hunt. Instead, Bellini was alluding to a piece of classical music -- George Frideric Handel's "Zadok the Priest," the Champions League anthem.

It will ring out once more on Tuesday night as Napoli's players climb the staircase and emerge on the athletics track behind the goal in that intimidating concrete bowl they call home for the kickoff of the first leg of their playoff against Athletic.

More than 50,000 fans are expected.

"San Paolo has always been our 12th man," captain Marek Hamsik insisted in Monday's news conference. "It will give us a hand again tomorrow."

Just as it did against Man City, Bayern, Villarreal, Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal and Olympique de Marseille in recent years. Only one of them escaped the suburb of Fuorigrotta without defeat. No one left Capodichino Airport with a win.

Facing Napoli in this setting isn't for the faint of heart. It induces fear.

Napoli's home support can be intimidating for opposing teams.

Winners of the Coppa Italia in two of the past three seasons [if you overlook their elimination from the Europa League in March], they are one of those formidable cup teams, capable of beating anyone on their day.

Recall, for instance, how champions Juventus and runners-up Roma, both of whom had record-breaking, best-ever campaigns in Serie A last term, also lost amid the smoke and smell of cordite of the flares at San Paolo that heat up the atmosphere and make the bowl even more evocative of the crater of an erupting and all-consuming Vesuvius where opponents get burnt.

Reasons for optimism are plenty then. And yet the mood is nervy and understandably so. For one, there is close to 40m euros at stake. That's what Napoli earned from the Champions League last season when they were desperately unlucky not to reach the last 16, becoming the first team to be eliminated from the group stage despite putting up 12 points -- and in a group of death too -- an outcome that reduced Higuain to tears.

All of Italy should be behind the Partenopei. It's vital for Serie A's standing and integrity to have its best teams in the competition proper. Udinese's failure to make it through the playoffs, losing to Arsenal in 2012 and then Braga in 2013 damaged the league's UEFA coefficient. Still, Juventus and Roma will perhaps be hoping Napoli miss out so they can divide the TV money between the two of them rather than three.

- Benitez plays down Napoli UCL fears
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Athletic are without doubt the toughest opponent they could have drawn even without Ander Herrera, who left for Manchester United in the summer. Standard Liege, FC Københaven, Besiktas or even Lille would all have been more preferable.

"[Athletic] are a complete team that can do a bit of everything," coach Rafa Benitez said. "They can press high, defend deep, play the ball, counter-attack."

One journalist responded to that answer by suggesting that Napoli instead give the impression of being incomplete. That was more a comment on the club's transfer business, or relative lack thereof, this summer.

Compared with a year ago when there was a lot of hype and enthusiasm around Napoli after the appointment of Benitez and the signings that followed the sale of Edinson Cavani to PSG, which contributed to Napoli's being one of the main protagonists in the European market, there has been little of the preseason showmanship we've come to expect from owner Aurelio De Laurentiis.

New recruits weren't presented on the Costa Concordia [not least because the cruise ship was wrecked off the coast of the Isola del Giglio two years ago]. No one has been unveiled in a lion's mask [as Gokhan Inler was in 2011]. Nor has De Laurentiis stormed out of Sky Italia's TV studios following the release of the new season's fixtures, turned the air blue with obscenities, hailed down a passing moped driver and jumped on the back and sped off into the evening light. Instead it has been a sobering summer.

Triumph in the Coppa Italia in May was overshadowed by clashes beforehand. A Napoli supporter, Ciro Esposito, was shot. Sadly, he died six weeks later. It shook everyone connected with the club. The gate receipts from a near-sold-out friendly against PAOK went to charities of his mother's choice and community groups in the area where he grew up.

Lifting the mood has understandably been hard. To return to their recruitment strategy, Napoli's has so far been quite restrained, while their rivals Juventus and Roma have made further strides forward. A glance at their finances will tell you why.

There's been lesser than normal excitement from Napoli's fan base after the club failed to make any major signings.

The club's wage bill has increased in the past 12 months in accordance with the profile of players Benitez [attracted and] signed. Excellently run though they are, posting profits every year since their promotion in 2007, revenues that rank as only the 22nd highest in Europe mean that -- until they grow them further, and Benitez won't contemplate a big capital gain through the sale of, say Gonzalo Higuain or Jose Maria Callejon -- a careful eye must be kept on the accounts now more than ever in this era of financial fair play.

Unlike a year ago, when Napoli automatically qualified for it, they aren't yet sure of Champions League money, nor as it stands can they offer players the opportunity to play in it. And so their transfer strategy has to an extent been in standby, awaiting the result of this playoff. It has brought some dissent. During a friendly with PSG, Napoli ultras unfurled a banner accusing De Laurentiis of being miserly. "Daring doesn't hurt," it read. Still, it's not as though they haven't signed anyone.

Napoli have bought centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly from Genk, a man-mountain nicknamed K2. Netherlands international midfield player Jonathan de Guzman is close to joining from Villarreal -- a more technical footballer than Valon Behrami -- and will be reunited with his former Swansea teammate Michu, who can alternate either with Higuain as a centre-forward or Hamsik as a No.10 or second striker.

Frustration has come in not being able to strengthen in central midfield, Benitez's No.1 priority. Napoli's long pursuit of Maxime Gonalons ended with his deciding to stay at Lyon. The prospect of working again with Javier Mascherano, his former player at Liverpool, faded after he had an outstanding World Cup and then signed a new contract at Barcelona. Other options explored include Lucas Leiva, Sandro and Christoph Kramer, with the focus now firmly on the loan of Dries Mertens' Belgium teammate Marouane Fellaini.

None are of a high enough profile to generate great enthusiasm among the fans who have been told that the return of players who missed long stretches of last season through serious injury -- goalkeeper Rafael [the new No.1 following the end of Pepe Reina's loan and high wages that precluded a permanent deal], full-backs Christian Maggio, Giandomenico Mesto and Camilo Zuniga -- should be considered almost as though they were new signings.

That only Bayern, Man United and Barcelona sent more players to the World Cup than Napoli is another thing De Laurentiis likes to remind supporters of in order to underline the existing quality within the squad. He does have a point. Napoli should be better this season. The players they bought last summer will be more familiar with their coach, his system and style of play and the league. That should bring greater confidence and consistency. Juventus and Roma were also extraordinary last season. A more "ordinary" season should see Napoli go closer.

Can Gonzalo Higuain rebound from a poor World Cup final to lead Napoli?

But first they have to concentrate on Athletic. La Liga starts a week before Serie A, so the Basques are likely to be ahead in their preparation. A disadvantage of that World Cup stat De Laurentiis is so fond of is that many of Napoli's most important players were late to preseason training.

How will Higuain have recovered from the misses he made in the World Cup final? He had spoken of his dream of repeating Diego Maradona's feat of winning it in '86, then leading Napoli to the scudetto in '87. The first part of it was dashed.

El Pipita did score in the 2-1 defeat to PSG last week. Napoli had inflicted a morale-boosting defeat on Luis Enrique's Barcelona before. Those friendlies against top-class opposition will have helped Benitez's players get up to speed. They are not yet at 100 percent though.

"We know that when you play games like these, not conceding is important and scoring is fundamental," Benitez said. "But there's a second game, we'll have to see what happens at San Mames, which is a mythical stadium, but San Paolo is one too."

They say a crowd has never scored a goal. But in this tie, it'll have its role to play in both legs. Napoli-Athletic promises to be a firecracker of a playoff.

James Horncastle

James Horncastle is a European football writer who contributes to ESPN, BBC Sport, Guardian Football Weekly, FourFourTwo and The Blizzard. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.

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