Zurich: Napoli’s first game of the season could be also be one of their most difficult and important as they host Spain’s Athletic Bilbao in the first leg of their Champions League playoff tie on Tuesday.
Arsenal, who visit Besiktas, will be aiming to reach the lucrative group stage for the 17th consecutive season while, at the other extreme Slovan Bratislava, Ludogorets Razgrad and Malmo are all trying to qualify for the first time.
Millions of euros are at stake for the clubs involved in this week’s 10 matches thanks to the huge appearance fees, performance bonuses and television money handed out by Uefa to those who reached the group stage.
Last season, Uefa awarded each of the 32 teams 8.6 million euros just for taking part in the group stage, with more thrown in for wins and draws.
Napoli’s participation last season brought them 38.6 million euros, including 4 million in the so-called performance bonuses and 26 million euros their share of the television market pool.
Failure to beat Athletic, Europa League runners-up in 2012, could put immediate pressure on Napoli coach Rafael Benitez, whose debut season last season was regarded as only satisfactory.
A third place Serie A finish and the Coppa Italia title were the bare minimum expected from the Spaniard at Italy’s biggest-spending club who performed only in fits and starts last term, repeatedly dropping precious Serie A points against lower-placed opposition.
“Those two matches can shape a season because it’s true that the Champions League provides a different dimension to the club, the city and to us players,” said Napoli forward Marek Hamsik.
“Among the five possible opponents, with Athletic we have been landed with the most difficult,” warned Benitez.