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Europa League

Xavi: Barca are not Europa League favourites

Xavi does not believe Barcelona are favourites to win the Europa League as they prepare to face Napoli in a play-off first leg on Thursday.

The Blaugrana’s run of 17 successive years competing in the knockout rounds of the Champions League came to a halt when they finished third behind Bayern Munich and Benfica in Group E.

Barca will battle with Serie A side Napoli for a place in the round of 16 in their first experience of playing in Europe’s secondary club competition in its current guise.

However, head coach Xavi spoke of his anger over the Catalan giants’ elimination from the Champions League.

They did not consider themselves to be contenders for the Europa League.

He told reporters on Wednesday:

“I wouldn’t say we are favourites. We’re going for the two titles, but we’re up against a difficult opponent.

“Sevilla have much more experience than us in this competition. Therefore, I see us as candidates, not favourites, but in the tie.”

Napoli is third in Serie A after holding champions Inter to a 1-1 draw on Saturday.

Xavi knows Barca face a big challenge as they attempt to advance at the expense of Luciano Spalletti’s side.

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“We could perfectly see this tie in the Champions League. They are an excellent team,” he said.

“Napoli are a compact team with a very experienced coach. They work well in moving the ball and pressing high up the pitch.

“They’re going to make it difficult for us. Napoli wants the ball. But, they also defend well in low blocks and have top-class players.”

Xavi has found it painful to see Champions League matches knowing Barca are out of the competition but considers the Europa League as a chance to add a new trophy to the club’s haul.

He added: “It’s one more motivation to win a title that we don’t have. It makes me very angry to listen to the music of the Champions League and not be there.”

The Barca boss revealed he could give Sergio Busquets a rest and hinted he might be ready to unleash Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from the start.

He said of the Gabon striker: “Now he is 100 per cent, and we will see him play safely. He is capable of playing space, going down to receive and unload.

“I am happy with him. He is very professional and very positive within the group.”

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