Napoli must halt free-scoring Wolfsburg to make Europa progress

Coach Rafael Benitez is bidding to achieve a third Europa League success, this time with Napoli.

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LONDON —  

Napoli manager Rafa Benitez is all about control. Nothing, he believes, should be left to chance.

He is meticulous and demands his players to follow instructions. When he was at Liverpool, he had a chart on the wall of his office showing how many minutes each player had played and he would often make substitutions based on those numbers rather than how a game was going. He lived on the Wirral then and, every morning, he would get up and take a photograph of the sunrise; he collated date, he cataloged, he taxonomize.

There are those who believe he is overbearing, that he stifles players — and there is a certain irony in the fact that Benitez’s two greatest moments at Liverpool came after he was forced to let Steven Gerrard off the leash; at 3-1 down to West Ham in the 2006 FA Cup final; and at 3-0 down to AC Milan in the UEFA Champions League final in 2005.

Those, though, were outliers. What Benitez is really good at is taking games in isolation, breaking them down and working out a way to win them — which might explain why his record is so much better in cup competitions than in the league when the flow of matches means that preparation time is limited and there is less of a sense of each as a one-off occasion. Benitez has already won the UEFA Cup and Europa League trophies with Valencia and Chelsea. If he is to achieve a third success with a third different club, he must find a way of stopping the competition’s most free-scoring attack, Wolfsburg.

Dieter Hecking’s side have scored 21 goals in 10 games in the competition so far (to go with 62 in 28 in the Bundesliga). It has thrived by taking the game to their opponents, the drive and invention of Kevin De Bruyne linking the wing-play of Andre Schurrle and Vieirinha and the finishing of Bas Dost.

So far in the knockout stages, Benitez has met every challenge. Trabzonspor was beaten 4-0 in Turkey before a 1-0 win wrapped things up at the San Paolo. A 3-1 win in the home leg against Dinamo Moscow might have meant a tricky tie in Russia, but Napoli was thoroughly proficient in drawing 0-0.

And if Napoli can shut Wolfsburg out, its opponent’s insistence on taking the initiative can leave it vulnerable at the back, something Everton showed in beating it 4-1 at Goodison Park and 2-0 in Germany in the group stage.

The oddity is that, in terms of players available, Napoli’s strength is at the front of the team, with Gonzalo Higuain or Duvan Zapata backed up by Marek Hamsik with Dries Mertens and Jose Callejon wide. Similarly, it hasn’t been particularly secure in the league, leaking 37 goals in 30 games, with only two clean sheets in the last 11 matches as Napoli slipped to sixth before Sunday’s 3-0 win over Fiorentina propelled it back into fourth. A seven-point gap to Roma in third though is unlikely to be bridged and, with Champions League qualification probably beyond them, it’s left to the Europa League to redeem the season.

Even if Napoli does repeat its UEFA Cup success of 1990, there’s no guarantee Benitez will stay. His contract is up in the summer and he has rejected the offer of a three-year extension, apparently targeting a move back to the Barclays Premier League, where he has been linked with roles at West Ham United, Newcastle United and Manchester City.

Given the increasing frustration among City’s directors at the repeated failure to get beyond the Round of 16 of the Champions League, offering a reminder of his tactical acuity in European ties could be a major boost to Benitez’s chances of returning to the north-west, where he still has his house, and where he could start photographing the sunrises again.

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The other Italian representative, Fiorentina, face a testing trip to Ukraine to face Serhiy Rebrov’s in-form Dynamo Kyiv, who added credence to the thought this might be the best Dynamo side in a decade by hammering Everton 5-2 in the second leg of the last 16. The winger Andriy Yarmolenko, in particular, has been in superb form of late.

Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, who also have an in-form winger in Yevhen Konoplyanka, travel to Belgium to face Club Brugge, conquerors of Besiktas in the last round.

Like Benitez, Andre Villas-Boas takes an Apollonian approach, and like Benitez, he is probably not rated as highly as he ought to be in England. He made his reputation by winning the Europa League with Porto in 2011 and could help restore it by leading Zenit to victory this season. He will be without the suspended playmaker Danny, though, for the away game against Sevilla.