Champions League: Will Any Italian Team Make It out of the Group Stages?
The beauty of the Champions League is that it is meant to showcase the best of the best from all the various UEFA leagues. Regardless of where a nation's domestic league ranks among fans' lists of the best, teams from those leagues are given the opportunity to still qualify and compete in the Champions League.
If you compiled a list of Champions League winners, you would find that Italy has produced the second highest amount of club victories, Spain is the only country with more since the tournament's inception.
Most of success can be attributed to three clubs: Inter, Milan and Juventus. Fittingly, Juventus and Milan are currently the only Italian teams still representing the country in the competition, as Udinese crashed out during the qualifying rounds.
There is, however, doubt as to whether or not these Italian teams can truly compete with the other top teams in Europe. There's even doubt as to whether not they could progress from the group stages.
Recent history does shade a bit on the side of the Italians.
Since the Juve vs. Milan all-Italian final back in 2003, an Italian team has advanced to the knockout stages in all but one year which was, coincidentally, the next season. Additionally, they have featured in three of those nine finals and won two.
Unfortunately, in the two Champions Leagues since Mourinho's Nerazzurri won it all, the Italian clubs have failed to make any sort of impact in the competition; either crashing out of the group stages or being overmatched in the knockouts.
This year, however, Juventus and Milan are keeping hopes of an Italian champion alive, but for how long?
Milan currently find themselves tied for second place with Anderlecht in Group C with the first leg gainst Zenit St. Petersburgh, who dropped their opening match with Malaga, coming up on Wednesday. While, the Rossoneri were handed a comparatively easy group to deal with, the problems are apparent. Their uninspiring performance in a 0-0 draw with Anderlecht who, for all intents and purposes, they should have been able to defeat was par for the course with Milan's subpar, both cup and domestic, start to the season.
Realistically, it was unfair to believe the Rossoneri would hold up to the winning tradition their tifosi are accustomed to, this season. Not to say that they wouldn't compete, but selling their two best players, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, both to Paris St. Germain, is not the preferred formula for capturing titles.
However, vice president Adriano Galliani and head coach Massimiliano Allegri were confident that the remaining players and a few summer transfers, notably Riccardo Montolivo from Fiorentina and Bojan on loan from Barcelona, would ease the transition into a new era for Milan.
Unfortunately, the gamble has proven to be miscalculated and Milan has been in a down spiral.
To their credit, Milan have seen their form improve since drawing with Anderlecht. A decisive 2-0 win over Cagliari and this weekend's 1-1 draw with Parma have shown some fight. It's early to say that this means Milan can challenge for titles but it's very encouraging as they attempt to right the ship. Whether or not Milan has success depends on a few players.
Kevin-Prince Boateng needs to be a driving force for the Rossoneri attack as he was during his breakout campaign last season. Amid speculation that he could return to England, with Manchester United interested, now is the time for Boateng to prove his worth; should he want to leave.
Stephan El Shaarawy continues to blossom with each passing match performance for Milan. If there's a silver lining for the Rossoneri in the departure of Ibra to PSG, it's the emergence of full first team football for El Shaarawy. The season is still young, but while he still needs to prove he can handle it with the "big boys" consistently, El Shaarawy was also the only strong point in the lackluster Anderlecht match.
Should El Shaarawy continue to his rise to stardom and Milan finds a way to shake their disappointing start to the season, there's no reason that Milan doesn't have the ability to advance to the knockout stages.
In almost a direct parallel of their Italian counterparts, Juventus appear to be a well-oiled machine showing no signs of stopping in their quest to match Inter's treble by conquering both Italy and Europe. Everything seems to be going right for the Bianconeri, and to their credit, it shouldn't come as a big surprise.
After putting together a Serie A in which they remained undefeated, many doubted whether it was a fluke or if Juve could continue this success with the added pressures of Champions League. So far, the Bianconeri have left the talking to their on-field performance and have silenced the critics.
Not only have their undefeated streak in Serie A but they followed it up by shocking those watching with an inspired comeback draw with Chelsea in the first leg of their match. Chelsea had pulled ahead with two strikes from the talented Brazilian Oscar, one of which is surely a candidate for goal of the tournament and possibly goal of the year, but Juve fought back to pull even.
The one thing that Juventus excels at is team play and getting everyone involved in the play, but naturally, there have been some standout players this season. It's whether or not these players can continue their run of good form for the entire Serie A plus Champions League that is the key to Juventus's success.
Andrea Pirlo has seen a renaissance since joining Juve from Milan last season. Milan is surely kicking themselves for casting Pirlo away thinking that his best days were behind him. He is the driving force behind the Bianconeri attack. He is not, however, ageless and, through a noticeable lack of pace, it seems to be taking its toll. As such, it remains to be seen whether his body will hold up with the rigors of Champions League but Juventus seem to have already put their contingency plan into place by supplanting Pirlo with newcomer Paul Pogba.
Another stroke of genius for Juventus was the addition of Fabio Quagliarella into the lineup.
Quagliarella's talent is undeniable and his partnership with Mirko Vucinic has provided the perfect outlet for Andrea Pirlo's work in the midfield. In fact it was his goal that tied the game against Chelsea when Juve were struggling to find breakdown the Chelsea defense. Quagliarella got in behind the back four and slotted the ball, cool and descively, past Cech to tie it up.
Questions of consistency have always been the knock on him but Fabio Quagliarella figures to be crucial to Juventus's success, both domestically and in the Champions League. Barring a major upset to either FC Nordsjælland or Shaktar, Juventus should advance easily from Group E into the knockouts.
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