Europa League Preview: The Italian Job

It is a return to European action for both Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig this week- albeit in the Europa League after their exits from the Champions League before Christmas. Both sides face Italian opposition in the round of 32 as they seek to make up for what has been an underwhelming competition for Bundesliga clubs so far.

Borussia Dortmund v Atalanta (Thursday 15th February 18:00 BST)

The Schwarzgelben face Atalanta of Bergamo in their first knock-out stage game with the first-leg at the Signal Iduna Park. Dortmund failed to live up to their usual Champions League pedigree as they struggled against Real Madrid and Tottenham in their group. More worrying was their inability to deal with minnows APOEL against whom they had to settle for a 1-1 draw in both matches. Indeed these were the only points picked up by BVB in six Group E games.

A new European slate however starts now under Peter Stöger, who endured a similar poor time in the group stages in charge at Köln. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goals have departed to Arsenal and with the Gunners also in the Europa League, what are odds of a reunion in a later round?

But first they will have to overcome a tough Atalanta assignment. The Orobici came through a tough-looking qualifying group as winners of Europa League Group E ahead of Lyon, Everton and Apollon Limassol unbeaten scoring fourteen goals and conceding just four in the process.

Coach Gian Piero Gasperini’s side are also enjoying another good campaign in Serie A after their highly impressive fourth place finish last season.

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This weekend saw them take a point from a 1-1 draw away at Crotone which keeps them just outside the European places in Serie A. Dortmund for their part kept up their unbeaten run under Peter Stöger with a 2-0 win over HSV.

Dortmund have never played Atalanta in a competitive match and their home record against Italian opposition is decidedly average with six wins, three draws and seven defeats.

One to Watch: Josip Iličić

The 30-year-old Slovenian has been a consistent performer in Italy since arriving in Palermo in 2010 and has been one of Serie A’s best-kept secrets for a while. This season has been particularly productive with the attacking midfielder scoring seven league goals and providing six assists. In the Europa League he has added two goals and two assists in four matches.

Napoli v RB Leipzig (Thursday 15th February 20:05 BST)

Having endured a sobering first-ever Champions League campaign, RB Leipzig face the daunting task of facing Italian giants and current Serie A pacesetters Napoli in the round of 32. This is the only tie in the entire round to see two earlier Champions League participants going head-to-head.

Leipzig’s first ever foray into European football ended with a third-place finish in Group G behind both Besiktas and FC Porto. Ralph Hasenhüttl’s side beat Porto 3-2 at home, but their best performance was their 4-1 demolition of Monaco at the Stade Louis II.  The Saxony side have gathered valuable European experience, but they face probably their toughest test to date when they travel to the Stadio San Paolo on Thursday.

Napoli finished behind Manchester City and Shakhtar Donetsk in Group F with a record of two wins and four defeats, which was below what was expected of them. They must however be considered one of the favourites for the Europa League trophy based on current form.

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The Gli Azzurri sit at the top of Serie A right now and their 4-1 win over Lazio on Saturday was their eighth successive league victory and keeps them a point ahead of title rivals Juventus. Maurizio Sarri has his side playing some fantastic attacking football at the moment and it looks like far from the ideal time for die roten Bullen to face the Italian giants from Campania.

One to Watch: Lorenzo Insigne

With Dries Mertens suspended for the first-leg the dangerman for Napoli could well be fellow forward Lorenzo Insigne. The left-sided attacker has scored five league goals and provided six assists this season and his pace will be a real threat to the Leipzig back line. In the Champions League he scored three goals in the group stage.

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Mathew Burt

A year spent living in Bremen got Mathew hooked on the Bundesliga with regular visits to the Weser Stadion getting in the way of his studies. Back in the UK now, he still keenly follows the Grün-Weißen and German football in general. Follow him on Twitter @matburt74.

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