How Will Italian Clubs Fare In European Competition?
Serie A was struck by storms this weekend. While the United States was dealing with the horrors of the hurricanes, areas such as Livorno experienced their own extreme weather and loss of life. Miraculously, all but one match took place.
There were surprises. AC Milan faced its first real challenge and failed spectacularly. Fiorentina’s new-look side seemed to click and ran out 5-0 winners against a hapless Verona team. There were also more run-of-the-mill fixtures. Juventus won. Napoli won. Inter won. Fairly standard, really.
But that’s because there’s a different specter looming in the minds of the top teams. As we enter September, the opening rounds of European competition are about to take place. As such, now’s a good a time as any to see what kind of challenge the Italian teams in the Champions League and Europa League will face.
The obvious place to start is Juventus. Last season’s beaten finalist was in the first pot for the draw, placing it among the top seeds for the tournament. However, this wasn’t enough to avoid one of the continent’s big hitters. Juventus shares a group with Barcelona, as well as Sporting and Olympiakos. But the team from Turin should expect to come out on top. They handily beat the Catalans last year and have improved since then, while their opponents have lost one of their best players in Neymar.
Juventus prepare to face Barcelona again in the #UCL...Who will come out on top this time? pic.twitter.com/R319emxhP9
— #UCL (@ChampionsLeague) September 11, 2017
But that’s not the entire story. Barcelona has started the season well and still has Messi. Regardless of your transfer dealings, being able to call on the greatest player of all time will always make for a dangerous opponent. Thus, Juve’s group will likely end with them qualifying, though whether they can grab top spot will come down to their performance in the Camp Nou. Get a draw (or better) there and Juventus’ fate is in its own hands.
Roma will be less happy with its draw. The team from the capital has found itself in a tough group with Atletico, Chelsea and Qarabag. While the first two in that list are widely considered among the favorites to go deep into this competition, Qarabag presents its own unique challenge and annoyance to Roma. The round trip from Rome to Azerbaijan is not short and could well prove disruptive, with Roma facing Milan four days after returning from Baku.
It's no secret Roma has not started well. They’ve struggled against smaller teams and the loss against Inter Milan will be a knock to the confidence in the early days of Di Francesco’s reign. However, the weather over the weekend might prove to be a surprising help to the Roman side, providing them with additional rest before they play Atletico at home in the opening fixture. Given how badly Rome was affected by the weather, though, it’s unclear how this will play out. Third place and dropping into the Europa League might seem inevitable at this stage.
— AS Roma English (@ASRomaEN) September 11, 2017
Finally, we get to Napoli. After getting past Nice the qualifying rounds, there’s a sense that Sarri’s side could really set the competition alight. They don’t have the easiest group. Manchester City is the obvious favorite to progress, while away trips to Shakhtar Donetsk and Feyenoord are traditionally challenging for any team. Given the quality in Napoli’s XI, however, they should be looking at making the second stage of the competition.
They could even look to top the group. In past years, Pep Guardiola teams have struggled when playing away in the Champions League. He’s dropped points in odd places all over Europe. A trip to the San Paolo, therefore, could be the chance to wrest the advantage away from the British side and make a real statement of intent.
This group, really, is not exactly about Napoli qualifying. That should be a given. In reality, this could be the audition for a seat at the top table of European football. It’s a chance for Napoli to finally show the rest of the continent what it can do on a football pitch. Europe should pay attention. Napoli is a dark horse for this competition and is easily capable of working its way deep into the tournament, just like Monaco last year. So they’ll probably finish fourth here.
But what of Europe’s other cup competition? The Europa League is often overlooked but it can provide a fine adventure for those sides not lucky enough to finish higher in the domestic table. Take Atalanta, for example. They’ll be relishing a chance to take on Europe. One of the best producers of youth players in Italy, Atalanta has long been a respectable domestic side but it is now looking to take the next step. It won’t be easy.
They’ve got a tough group. Everton and Lyon both have bigger budgets, while Appollon Limasol will be fighting tooth and nail for every point. Unlike the Champions League, there’s no consolation prize for finishing third here. Instead, Atalanta will likely have to win points away in England or France if they’re likely to progress. They’ve not been bad so far in Serie A, but it’s a considerable challenge for them to take on the richer teams. They’re expected to finish third, though they do have the capacity to surprise.
Lazio will probably fair better. They’re certainly better known around Europe, though prestige can often put a price on your head at this level. However, Lazio is beginning its Europa League campaign off the back of a 4-1 victory over a much-hyped Milan side. They were excellent on the weekend, despite having sold one of their best players to Monaco in the closing stages of the transfer window. They don’t seem to have missed Keita Balde that much.
The team from Rome finds itself in a group with Zulte-Waregem and Vitesse Arnhem. They will consider themselves better than both the Belgian and the Dutch side, though will find the fourth opponent a more difficult proposition. They play Nice, the side Napoli thrashed to get to the Champions League. However, Nice were far from their best on that occasion. They’ve proved this by thrashing Monaco on the weekend. Lazio will be lucky to finish first, more likely to finish in second place and qualify for the knockout round.
And so we get to Milan. Occupants of so much column space so far this season, Milan is one of the most talked about teams of the year. Everyone has been enthralled by the spending spree, wondering how far they can progress. But $240 million doesn’t go as far as it used to. As we saw on the weekend, Milan is far from the team it could one day become.
— AC Milan (@acmilan) September 11, 2017
The chastening at the hands of Lazio has put a dampener on the hype. The Europa League, however, could be the perfect place for Milan’s new faces to become used to one another. Matches against AEK Athens, FK Austria Wein and Rijeka should not be too big a challenge. But Milan needs time. Expect them to do well, to win the group, but also to have the occasional wobble and scare. They might not be able to go that far in the competition, but Milan will benefit more from the game time than the trophies.