Serie A will have three representatives in the last of sixteen of Europe’s premier club competition, the Uefa Champions League; more than any other league in Europe. We assess the chances for the teams from the peninsula, which fly the flag for Italian football on the continent.
Earlier this year, it was announced that the Italian league would lose their fourth champions league spot to the Bundesliga ahead of the 2012/13 campaign. Still recovering from the calciopoli scandal, there are signs at last that Italian football is emerging.
The champions, AC Milan negotiated their favourable draw in a routine manner, just as their city rivals Inter. However, do either club really harbour serious hopes of appearing in the Allianz Arena at the end of May?
The Nerazzurri are now fifth from bottom in Serie A and thirteen points off third place Udinese, who defeated Inter 1-0 in their weekend trip to the San Siro. How the mighty have fallen! The treble winners in 2010 and the dominating Italian club team since 2006, Inter, are now in freefall. Italy’s most promising youngsters, Mario Balotelli and Davide Santon sold. Jose Mourinho, the mastermind at the helm, gone. Samuel Eto’o, arguably the best number nine of his generation, not retained.
How fortuitous they were to be given such a kind draw and as winners of Group B, they have every chance of progressing further. With such talent remaining on their roster, if Inter are out of title contention by February, they could actually be a surprise contender for the coveted Champions League trophy. The mix of experienced players with a high pedigree and not a lot else to play for, could spark motivation and concentration levels needed for the Nerazzurri to be competitive.
The Rossoneri, in contrast to their city rivals, are rejuvenated. The Italian champions are two points off Serie A leaders, Juventus and look to have the artillery to cause any team problems. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is now every bit the player Barcelona thought they had signed and leads the line like no other. His supporting cast of Robinho and Pato, however inconsistent, remain world class attacking talents. Kevin Prince Boateng has stepped into the void left by Andrea Pirlo and Thiago Silva continues to develop in to a defender worthy of wearing the famous red and black striped jersey.
AC Milan do have concerns though. Alessandro Nesta is still the best defender at the club and when he is missing the defence is weakened to an immeasurable degree. Christian Abbiati fails to reassure his defence with continual suspect performances as frequent as his heroic saves. The Rossoneri have it all to do after finishing second in their group. They will do well to evade the top European outfits but at some point they must face them; at which point their frailties will be highlighted.
The romantic hope from an Italian point of view is Napoli. Thrown into the group of death, Napoli had no right to qualify through to the last sixteen; with Manchester City’s expenditure, Villarreal’s experience and Bayern Munich’s pedigree. Yet something special is happening at Napoli, something of a renaissance. The competent Morgan De Sanctis is protected by a hard working rearguard that makes it hard for any team to break down.
In the decisive game away to Villarreal, Gokhan Inler grabbed a sensational first goal for the Neapolitans, to help send them towards qualification; heroes are everywhere in the squad. Christian Maggio, a right sided player of the highest quality, energy and passion which filters through his team mates; continually makes lung busting runs with tactical precision. Players that are being demanded by “bigger clubs”, Marek Hamsik and the mercurial Edinson Cavani in particular, are ready to fight the Napoli cause. Being a part of a small southern Italian club and winning, offers more reward than winning with an elite team.
Of Course though, the Neapolitans are in the tough side of the draw. Their squad is stretched with the European Champions League and although at full strength they could give any team a game, at the business end of the season, injuries are sure to suppress the thinnest squads the most. The team to beat are most definitely Barcelona, with Mourinho’s Real Madrid a real contender. Any team that wants to win this competition will have to beat them, although it would be fair to guess that both Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho would most certainly like to avoid AC Milan or Napoli.
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