When the 2012-13 UEFA Champions League draw was announced, just two Italian teams were burdened with the challenge to deliver Europe's premier trophy to the Italian peninsula...just two. And I say just two because, as any Serie A fan will tell you, never in the history of the Champions League has Italy been so lowly represented in Europe's top competition.
Juventus and AC Milan—despite being rivals—carried the hopes of a nation. With Juventus being absent from the Champions League for few years and AC Milan looking severely depleted, it is fair to say that the future of Italian football was best described as...bleak.
Such feelings were compounded when, just three matches into the competition, Antonio Conte's men had still not registered a win in the competition and Massimo Allegri's Rossoneri were struggling to contain a rampant Malaga side.
However, one Philippe Mexès bicycle later—along with a comprehensive 3-0 demolition of last season's champions of Europe—ensured that Italy would head into the round-of-16 with a 100% group-to-elimination representation level.
The ever-so-tantalising UEFA Champions League draw certainly had everyone on the edge of their seats as Europe's top clubs left their hopes of progression down to chance. Whilst the Bianconeri contingent were able to sit back and breathe a sigh of relief knowing they had avoided the likes of Bayern Munich and Barcelona; Milanista everywhere had most probably fallen off their chairs at the sound of Barcelona's name being called.
After Juventus swept aside Celtic at Parkhead, it was down to Milan to try and hold off a Barcelona onslaught...well, that's what everyone was predicting, right?
It is at this point that I regrettably offer kudos to AC Milan (sincerely from a Juventus fan) for what played out at the San Siro, in their first leg tie against the La Liga leaders. Milan were simply magnificent in their tactical execution against Tito Vilanova's. Never—in a very long time—have I seen Barcelona shut out of a match as much as they were in the second half of the match at the San Siro. It was almost as though Lionel Messi wasn't even on the pitch.
It is performances seen in Milan's second half display against Barca and Juventus' countering of the Hoops that highlight that the Serie A is fast becoming the most tactically advanced league in the world. I'd argue it still isn't the best in the world, but by the end of next season, don't be surprised to see a plethora of success coming out of Italy.
The Old Lady has led the way in that respect. Conte's use of a 3-5-2 formation broke a whole host of tradition in Italian circles but has paid dividends for the Turin giants. Add a world-class striker to the mix and Juve will undoubtedly perfect their chosen formation to great effect. With the likes of Napoli and Inter Milan also trying to replicate Juventus' 3-5-2 style, next year is looking likely to be a stellar year for Italian clubs.
Against Celtic, Juve hijacked Celtic's successful tactical arrangement against Barcelona and used it to great effect against Neil Lennon's side. It was very much unlike how Juventus generally play, I mean, any side with Andrea Pirlo would want to hold the ball as much as possible. Turns out it was quite the contrary in the end, with Celtic actually holding more possession. However, to go to Celtic Park and adopt a style of play not familiar—especially to a generally aggressive side—and come away with a comprehensive win only accentuates Juventus' meticulous tactical understanding.
AC Milan put Barca to the sword via a 4-3-3 set-up. It didn't result in more possession, nor did it result in better passing. But Milan ended up with more shots than their highly-rated counterparts, not to mention two more goals as well.
Allegri's set-up has become sort of "tokenistic" for Milan. The Rossoneri have stuck to their trusted formation for better or for worse. However, since the arrival of Mario Balotelli during the January window, better times have dawned upon the seven-time UEFA Champions League winners. Throw in the fact Stephen El-Shaarawy and Riccardo Montolivio are playing exceptionally well and you have a Milan side that will prove to be serious UCL contenders next season.
What is also of note is that, in the UEFA Europa league, Italy actually have Inter Milan and Lazio still in contention for silverware. Despie Napoli bundling out in surprising fashion, both Inter and Lazio successfully progressed to the round-of-16.
It would prove remiss of me to avoid the fact that Milan still do have to travel to the Nou Camp before they can say they triumphed over one of the best footballing sides in human history. However, Italian sides are notoriously good at holding out first-leg leads...flashbacks to Jose Mourinho's "parking the bus" with Inter need no introduction.
Juventus—unless they capitulate—look to be a safe bet through to the quarter finals; and with Milan in a very nice position, who's to say 2003 isn't dawning again on the UEFA Champions League? Let's just hope—for football's sake—if a Juventus vs AC Milan final was to eventuate, the match would prove a hell of a lot more entertaining than the match at Old Trafford.
One thing is for certain though...the Serie A is back!