Napoli showed fighting spirit against Sparta – Benitez

The Spaniard was thrilled with the way in which the Partenopei battled back to beat their Czech opponents in light of a turbulent few weeks at the San Paolo

Napoli coach Rafa Benitez has voiced his delight with how his side responded to falling behind to Sparta Prague in Thursday’s 3-1 Europa League win.

Napoli found themselves trailing after 14 minutes in Naples, when Josef Husbauer opened the scoring for the Czech champions, but Sparta Prague were pegged back nine minutes later as Gonzalo Higuain converted a penalty, before a second-half double from Dries Mertens sealed maximum points for the Italian outfit.

While he feels there is still room for improvement, Benitez has stressed that he was pleased with Napoli’s response.

“I liked the positive reaction from the team,” Benitez told Sport Mediaset.

“After conceding that goal, we played a good game and it was all very positive.

“We could’ve done better defending corners, but the strikers created many scoring opportunities.

“Sparta Prague started with a 4-4-2 and pressed us a lot, so it wasn’t easy to control the ball.”

The win provided a much-needed boost for Napoli, who were surprisingly beaten 1-0 at home to Chievo in Serie A last week.

Higuain buoyed by Napoli 'redemption'

The Argentina star struck twice after his side had fallen behind on the night, to clinch a result that could kick-start a disappointing start to the campaign

Gonzalo Higuain says Napoli have redeemed themselves with their 3-1 victory over Sparta Prague in Thursday’s Europa League group game.

The Partenopei went 1-0 behind 14 minutes into their Stadio San Paolo clash, sparking fears among home fans of back-to-back defeats following their loss at the ground to Chievo on Sunday.

However, Higuain converted from the spot to trigger a turnaround of fortunes for Rafa Benitez’s men, with Dries Mertens scoring twice in the second half.

The Argentina striker believes that the performance was proof that Napoli are trying their hardest to turn around their middling 2014-15 fortunes, following a miserable start to their Serie A campaign.

“After Sunday’s defeat had to prove to our fans that we wanted to win and that we wanted these three points,” Higuain told Mediaset Premium. “It was an important game, we had to show our character.

“Last year we played in a lot of big games late in the season and this year we want to repeat that. I shot my penalty in the same direction as I did on Sunday – I was not thinking about another mistake but only to score.”

Napoli are back in action in Serie A on Sunday at Udinese.

Cuadrado, Eto'o, Higuain & the biggest stars of the Europa League

With the competition proper starting on Thursday, Goal take a look at the big-name players set to do battle for continental glory…

While the Champions League remains Europe’s premier club competition, the Europa League continues to gain ground and will again be a tournament full of big stars in 2014-15.

The involvement of major clubs like Napoli, Sevilla and Tottenham ensure there will be plenty of top talent on show immediately from the group stages – even before eight Champions League clubs join the party in the New Year.

In a list that is sure to whet your appetite for the opening games, Goal take a look at 10 of the biggest stars who will be playing in the Europa League this year…

Carlos Bacca (Sevilla)

Sevilla may have lost Ivan Rakitic, Alberto Moreno and Federico Fazio from last season’s Europa League-winning squad but they were able to hang on to star striker Carlos Bacca.

The 28-year-old Colombian scored 21 goals during his first season in Spain – including a vital strike in the dramatic semi-final tie against Valencia – and will be key to his side’s hopes of defending the trophy.

Juan Cuadrado (Fiorentina)

After being heavily linked with moves to Barcelona and Manchester United after an excellent World Cup for Colombia, Juan Cuadrado eventually stayed with Fiorentina.

Vincenzo Montella’s men are ranked amongst the competition favourites and the electric 26-year-old wideman is likely to provide a consistent threat to their opponents as he builds on the best 12 months of his career to date.

Memphis Depay (PSV)

Memphis Depay built on an impressive 2013-14 season by starring at the World Cup for Netherlands, leading to him being the subject of intense transfer speculation this summer.

After eventually staying put, a groin injury unfortunately means the 20-year-old attacker will be out for six to eight weeks – but he will be expected to play a key part in PSV’s challenge on his return to fitness.

Christian Eriksen (Tottenham)

Christian Eriksen has been a European regular in both the Champions League and the Europa League over the course of his young career to date.

The 22-year-old former Ajax playmaker is already established as an important part of the Tottenham team and could provide the spark required to lead them to the long continental run the White Hart Lane fans crave.

Samuel Eto’o (Everton)

Samuel Eto’o has won a glittering array of honours in his career and now has the chance to add the Europa League to his collection after signing for Everton in the summer.

With Romelu Lukaku established as the first-choice attacker at Goodison Park for Premier League games, the Cameroon international should see plenty of action in the European matches and still represents a major goal threat.

Gonzalo Higuain (Napoli)

For the first time since moving to Europe in 2007, Gonzalo Higuain starts a continental group-stage campaign in the Europa League rather than the Champions League after Napoli’s playoff defeat to Athletic Bilbao.

But the Champions League’s loss is certainly this competition’s gain, with the World Cup finalist undoubtedly one of the biggest names on show and a player who is likely to be challenging for the golden boot award if he can stay injury-free.

Luiz Gustavo (Wolfsburg)

As a key part of the Brazil national team and a former Champions League winner, Luiz Gustavo is a bigger name than most of the players who will take to the field in this season’s Europa League.

The 27-year-old is one of the game’s top holding midfielders and remains at Wolfsburg to assist their European challenge after a rumoured move to Real Madrid failed to materialise in the summer.

Yevhen Konoplyanka (Dnipro)

After Yevhen Konoplyanka’s move to Liverpool fell through at the last moment back in January, few would have expected the Ukraine winger to still be playing at unheralded Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk beyond the summer.

However, the 24-year-old remains at the Dnipro-Arena and is the biggest threat possessed by the Ukrainian Premier League runners-up as they attempt to make their mark in the Europa League this year.

Mateo Kovacic (Inter)

Now entering his second full season with Inter, big things are expected of 20-year-old Croatia international midfielder Mateo Kovacic.

After playing in the World Cup this summer, he has already started 2014-15 on fire having scored four goals in as many games. With the San Siro side one of the top clubs playing in the competition, expect Kovacic to produce some eye-catching performances.

Virgil van Dijk (Celtic)

Classy defender Virgil van Dijk was one of the few positives to emerge from Celtic’s disappointing Champions League campaign last season.

The Scottish champions have a better chance of making a long run in the Europa League and the tournament provides the 23-year-old Netherlands international with another perfect opportunity to showcase his talents.

De Rossi Serie A's highest earner

AC Milan duo Fernando Torres and Philippe Mexes both make the top 10, actually making more money per year than Juventus playmaker Andrea Pirlo

Daniel De Rossi remains the highest-paid player in Serie A, just ahead of Argentine duo Gonzalo Higuain and Carlos Tevez.
Roma made De Rossi the biggest earner in Italy in 2012 when they offered him a contract extension worth €6.5 million after tax to stave off interest from a number of Premier League suitors, and the midfielder remains in top spot two years on.

Napoli managed to lure Higuain away from Real Madrid last summer with the promise of €5.5m per year, a cool million more than his compatriot and fellow forward Tevez, who also arrived in Italy 12 months ago, joining Juventus from Manchester City.

Mario Gomez will be hoping to justify his salary of €4.25m after injury-plagued first season at Fiorentina, while the highest new entry, according to the Gazzetta dello Sport‘s figures, is Fernando Torres, who moved to AC Milan on a two-year loan from Chelsea just before the close of the transfer window on August 31.

The Spain striker, who flopped at Stamford Bridge, will earn €4m per season, which is the same take-home pay as his Rossoneri team-mate Philippe Mexes, whom the Rossoneri were unsurprisingly hoping to remove from their wage bill this summer, and Juventus pair Gianluigi Buffon and Arturo Vidal.

Elsewhere, Andrea Pirlo nets €3.8m from the Bianconeri, which is just 300,000 more than team-mates Fernando Llorente, Claudio Marchiso, Giorgio Chiellini, AC Milan midfielder Riccardo Montolivo and, rather staggeringly, Marco Borriello, who will once again receive €3.5m for the final year of his contract with Roma.

Higuain, Tevez and the contenders to be Serie A top scorer this season

The departure of last season’s top scorer Ciro Immobile means the race for the Capocannoniere is wide open heading into the new term. Goal takes a look at the main contenders

Serie A returns this weekend and it is set to be an enticing and competitive campaign as several teams look to bring an end to Juventus’ era of dominance.

Following the transfer of last season’s Serie A top goalscorer, Ciro Immobile from Torino to Borussia Dortmund, the race for the Capocannoniere is wide open with main candidates Juventus, Napoli, Roma and Fiorentina being led by strikers who will all be looking to finish top of the goalscorer charts.

After a successful first season with Napoli, Gonzalo Higuain enters the new campaign as one of the favourites to top the scorer charts. The Argentine striker joined the Partenopei from Real Madrid and linked up well with Jose Callejon, Lorenzo Insigne and Marek Hamsik, scoring 17 times. Fully settled into the team and with Rafael Benitez’s side looking to mount a stronger challenge for the title, Higuain, boosted by the support of Michu, will have better service and will be confident of improving on his tally this term.

Following the departure of coach Antonio Conte, there is a growing feeling that Juventus’ reign of dominance is set to come to an end. However, the Bianconeri should still be confident of winning a fourth consecutive league title as they head into the new campaign with the same squad. Crucial to the Old Lady’s title hopes is striker Carlos Tevez. The Argentine scored 19 goals last term, only one of which was a penalty. The former Manchester City forward will be confident of racking up a similar record this year as his partnership with Fernando Llorente continues to flourish.

Despite starting only 19 games last season, Giuseppe Rossi netted 16 goals for Fiorentina. His conversion rate of nearly 35 per cent was the highest of anyone in the top 10 goalscorer chart. Worries have already been expressed over his knee heading into this campaign, but with the Viola looking to improve on their fourth place finish, Rossi, if fit will be critical and has a great chance of improving on his record.

Luca Toni
, who finished runner up in the scorer charts last season will fancy his chances of at least matching his remarkable tally of 20 for Hellas. However, the loss of Romulo, who set up eight goals last season, on loan to Juventus and the sale of Juan Iturbe to Roma severely lowers the quality of service to the Italy international.

Two-time Capocannoniere winner Antonio Di Natale will be looking to bow out in style by topping the charts once again while Juve forward Fernando Llorente will feel he has to improve on his record of 16 goals in 34 appearances last term.

With Inter looking to recover from another poor season, a lot of their hopes rely on Rodrigo Palacio who remains their main goal threat, having scored 17 times in 2013-14.

Mattia Destro has the potential to play a crucial role for Roma as they look to build on their magnificent 2013-campaign. No striker in last year’s top 30 had a higher shot conversion rate than the 23-year-old’s rate of 37% as he scored 13 non-penalty goals in 14 starts last term.