MX23RW : Friday, July 30 14:31:47| >> :600:8580684:8580684:
Apr 30, 2015 at 7.45pm UK at Stadio Carlo Castellani
Maccarone (8'), Britos (43' og.), Saponara (45'), Albiol (81' og.)
FT(HT: 3-0)
Laurini (64' og.), Hamsik (91')

Preview: Empoli vs. Napoli

Sports Mole previews Thursday night's Serie A clash between Empoli and Napoli at the Stadio Carlo Castellani.

Napoli travel to Tuscany on Thursday night looking to maintain their charge for a top-three spot in Serie A, while also preparing for a key Europa League semi-final in the coming weeks.

Standing between them and a fourth win in succession is an Empoli side who are renowned as being the division's draw specialists, and it is likely that the visitors will need to be on top of their game if they are to claim maximum points once again.


Massimo Maccarone (L) of Empoli celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the Serie A match between Atalanta BC and Empoli FC at Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia on April 26, 2015© Getty Images

As we enter the final six games of the Serie A season, Empoli's place in the top tier of Italian football looks to be secure for another season. That was very much the target after gaining promotion last year and, with an 11-point gap between them and the drop zone, it appears to be job done.

Successive 2-2 draws, which came on the back of a combined six-goal thrashing against Lazio and Juventus, have left the Azzurri sitting down in 16th place in the table.

The fact that Maurizio Sarri's charges appear to look so comfortable at this stage of the campaign is largely down to their ability to remain so hard to beat. Empoli have tasted fewer defeats than any other side in the bottom half of the division, while even second-placed Lazio have endured the same number of defeats - nine - as the Tuscany club.

They also have a habit of drawing games, including five in a row during December and January, which has allowed them to remain afloat throughout.

Defender Lorenzo Tonelli has this week been accused of making death threats to Atalanta striker German Denis during their 2-2 draw last weekend, something which the Empoli man categorically denies, but it is an accusation which Sarri will no doubt hope goes away soon in order for his side to avoid an unneeded distraction in the closing weeks.

Recent form: DWLLDD


Napoli's French-Argentinian forward Gonzalo Higuain (R) celebrates after scoring a goal during the Italian Serie A football match between SSC Napoli and UC Sampdoria on April 26, 2015© Getty Images

The end of the season may very well be in sight, but it is all still to play for in Napoli in the final throes of the campaign. Their hunt for a Champions League qualification berth looks likely to go right down to the wire, while there is also the small matter of a Europa League semi-final to look forward to.

Of course, should the Partenopei lift the famous trophy in Warsaw next month, then they will automatically be granted a place in Europe's showpiece competition next season. Rafael Benitez, a man who has tasted his fair share of success on the continent, will now be eager to end the season with a top-three place to go alongside another Europa League success.

Attention at this moment in time is firmly on league matters, though, with the West Ham United-linked manager recently admitting the importance of claiming success on two fronts this year. An Italian Super Cup triumph already in the bag, just two points separate Napoli in fourth and Roma one place above.

It looks likely to be a three-way battle for those elusive two remaining spots in the top three, with Lazio, Roma and Napoli all still in strong contention. Benitez's men play host to I Biancocelesti on the final day, while also tackling champions-elect Juventus before now and the curtain-closing fixture which could potentially decide the final incumbents of a European spot.

That makes victory against lowly Empoli a must on Thursday night, and with three league wins on the spin things are certainly looking good for the Stadio San Paulo outfit. While defensive issues have cost Napoli at times this campaign, there is no faulting their attacking talents which is led by 15-goal striker Gonzalo Higuain. The Argentina international's double against Sampdoria last time out helped his side fight back to claim all three points, which is exactly what they must take from their trip to Tuscany in order to keep hope alive.

Recent form in Serie A: LDLWWW
Recent form (all competitions): LWWWDW

Team News

 Gonzalo Higuain of Napoli celebrates after scoring goal 3-1 during the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 football match between SSC Napoli and FC Dinamo Moskva at the San Paolo Stadium on March 12, 2015© Getty Images

Christian Maggio was forced to sit out Napoli's victory over Sampdoria through suspension, but he is expected to return to the backline on Thursday night in place of Henrique.

Former Swansea City pair Jonathan de Guzman and Michu have both been on the injury table of late, and it is unlikely that either will return in time for the meeting with Empoli.

Elsewhere, Gokhan Inler and Dries Mertens could both face recalls to the starting lineup, having been left out last weekend.

In terms of the home side, Tonelli was handed a one-match ban for his part in the fracas which led to Dennis's punch-up in the dramatic 2-2 draw with Atalanta, meaning that he will sit this one out.

That could mean a place in the heart of defence for Federico Barba, who was introduced from the bench at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia.

Empoli possible starting lineup:
Sepe, Laurini, Rugani, Barba, Soderlund, Vecino, Valdifori, Croce, Saponara, Maccarone, Pucciarelli

Napoli possible starting lineup:
Andujar, Maggio, Ghoulam, Albiol, Mertens, Mesto, Hamsik, David Lopez, Inler, Callejon, Higuain

Head To Head

Empoli boast an impressive record against Napoli, having last tasted defeat in this fixture back in 1999. That is some six matches ago, although three of those games have ended in draws.

The sides played out an entertaining 2-2 draw earlier this season, in a game that saw last season's promoted Serie B outfit throw away a two-goal lead in the final 23 minutes of the contest.

Their last meeting before that came in the 2007-08 season, when three players were dismissed in a fiery affair which the Azzurri won 3-1.

Sports Mole Logo

We say: Empoli 0-2 Napoli

Empoli may be Serie A's draw specialists, but they will come out second best against a Napoli side boasting an impressive run of form in the top flight of late, which Benitez's men will extend a little further at the Stadio Carlo Castellani.

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Henrique of Napoli in action during the Serie A match between SSC Napoli and SS Lazio at Stadio San Paolo on April 13, 2014
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