2014/15 UEFA Champions League

Serie A: What Italy's 6 European Representatives Will Face

Sam LoprestiFeatured ColumnistAugust 5, 2014

Serie A: What Italy's 6 European Representatives Will Face

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    Juventus fell short in the Champions League in a disappointing campaign overall for Italy in Europe.
    Juventus fell short in the Champions League in a disappointing campaign overall for Italy in Europe.Claudio Villa/Getty Images

    Last year was a disappointing one for Italy in European competition.  Once considered the top league in the world, financial woes and crumbling infrastructure have seen Serie A clubs fail to seriously contend for the Champions League since Inter won the competition in 2010.

    Of the league's three Champions League representatives last season, only one managed to advance beyond the group stage.  

    Napoli finished in a three-way tie atop Group F but were bumped to the Europa League on goal difference.  Juventus wasted chances at points against Copenhagen and Galatasaray before being bumped to the second-tier competition after a controversial loss against Gala in Istanbul.  AC Milan managed to fight through terrible domestic form to squeeze through Group H but were shelled by Atletico Madrid in the round of 16.

    In the Europa League, Fiorentina and Lazio easily went through the group stages and were joined by Napoli and Juventus in the knockout round.  Lazio fell in the round of 32.  Napoli bowed out in the round of 16 along with Fiorentina, who were knocked out by Juve.  The Bianconeri managed to make the semifinal before losing a controversial tie against Benfica.

    The league's lackluster performance saw them drop behind Portugal to fifth in the UEFA coefficient rankings.  That is likely a temporary position—the loss of a strong 2010-11 season will almost certainly drop the Portuguese back to fifth next summer—but if Italy ever wants to get back into the top three and regain its lost fourth Champions League place, its clubs need to start playing deep into Europe on a consistent basis.

    They will try to start that process this year.  Six clubs will represent Serie A on the Continent this year.  What might they face?  How will they attack their opposition?

    Read on to find out.

Juventus

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    Arturo Vidal carried the Bianconeri in Europe.
    Arturo Vidal carried the Bianconeri in Europe.Claudio Villa/Getty Images

    After winning a second consecutive Scudetto and making a run to the quarterfinals of the Champions League two seasons ago, Juventus were considered by many to be dark horses in last year's Champions League.

    Unfortunately, the Bianconeri didn't live up to expectations.  The team's 3-5-2 formation—and its weakness against elite wing play—was considered the chief culprit.  The team's fans were hoping for major investment to allow the team to play a 4-3-3 this year.

    Such moves have been made—but not the ones they were hoping for.  Prime target Alexis Sanchez is at Arsenal, lured away by better wages.  Juan Manuel Iturbe was poached by Roma after Juve's drawn-out negotiations and the resignation of coach Antonio Conte presented them with an opportunity.

    Instead, the likes of Roberto Pereyra, Patrice Evra, Alvaro Morata and Romulo have been brought in.  They aren't household names now, but some of them may eventually be—and all give Juve the tactical versatility they have lacked the last few years.

    Morata in particular will be a big piece to the puzzle.  A fantastically talented young striker, he has been Karim Benzema's backup at Real Madrid the last few seasons and finally left the Bernabeu to seek more playing time.  He is fully capable of staking a place in Juve's starting XI.  Even though he wasn't a starter he has been at the late stages of the Champions League and played significant minutes in the final this past May.

    Juve begins this European campaign in a decent position.  They are assured placement in Pot 2 for the group-stage draw regardless of what happens in the qualifying and playoff rounds.  That means they won't have to meet Manchester City or PSG and might miss Borussia Dortmund as well.

    They will still have to face down one of Europe's biggest clubs from Pot 1, but there are opportunities for a good draw.  They are at least a match for Arsenal if the Gunners make it through to the group phase.  Chelsea has looked like a leviathan in the transfer window but were inconsistent last season and may be beatable on any given day.  A depleted Atletico Madrid may also be good opponents.

    The team's strength will once again be the midfield.  Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal make up one of the best midfield corps in the league.  At least three of them should be on the field at all times.

    Vidal—who can sustain an argument for best player in the world—has been the subject of rampant transfer talk, but club director Giuseppe Marotta has insisted that he will not be sold unless it is his wish to go.

    The main question will be whether new coach Massimiliano Allegri will rely on Conte's tried-and-true 3-5-2 or shift tactics back to a four-man line.  Allegri has indicated that he will stay with the 3-5-2 for the time being, telling Sky Sport Italia (via Football Italia) that it is "too early to tell" if the team will switch to four.

    It may be interesting to give the formation a run in Europe again.  Teams that ran the formation in the World Cup found success with it.  Costa Rica, Mexico and the Netherlands switched between the 3-5-2- and 5-3-2 as the situation required, and all had great Cup runs.  The formation may not be that weak after all.

    Beyond the field, the Bianconeri may end up held back by their own culture.  Unlike AC Milan, who going back to the years of Arrigo Sacchi would not hesitate to sacrifice a Scudetto to set up the squad for a European tie, Juventus has historically put their focus on the league.  The numbers reflect that.  Milan may have won seven European titles, but Juve's 30 scudetti—or 32, depending on who you talk to—is leaps and bounds ahead of any opposition.

    There is still a lot of uncertainty at Juve after Conte's departure.  It's not wrong, however to think that Allegri can move them in the Champions League.  He performed wonders in the Champions League with Milan teams that were nowhere near as talented as the squad he has at his disposal in Turin.

    So long as they keep Vidal it's fair to assume they'll make it out of the group stage even with a bad draw.  Whatever comes beyond that depends on who they're drawn with for the knockouts.

Roma

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    Francesco Totti will play Champions League soccer for the first time since 2010-11.
    Francesco Totti will play Champions League soccer for the first time since 2010-11.Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

    After three years dithering about just below the European qualifying spots, Roma's rebuilding project finally took hold last year.  A few key signings, the revitalisation of Francesco Totti and the arrival of coach Rudi Garcia saw the club put in its best season ever—and one that would have been good enough to win Serie A in six of the last eight years.

    The only thing between them and the Scudetto was the buzz saw that was Juventus, who dominated all en route to the Serie A points record.

    Last season was superb, but it, like Juve's unbeaten run three years ago and Liverpool's impressive Premier League run last term, came without the burdens of European competition.  The last time Roma played in Europe was the 2011-12 Europa League, when they were stunned in the playoff round by Slovan Bratislava.  The tie was headed for extra time when the Slovakian outfit equalized in the second leg eight minutes from time and won the aggregate 2-1.

    The first thing Roma had to do to get ready for the Champions League was beef up the roster.  This they have done, signing Juan Manuel Iturbe from Hellas Verona and pipping city rivals Lazio for defender Davide Astori.  Urby Emanuelson, Seydou Keita and Ashley Cole have also arrived to deepen the Giallorossi roster.

    Coupled with the signing of midfielder Radja Nainggolan in the January transfer window, it's arguable that Roma has had the best 2014 mercato.

    Now comes the problem of playing the games.  Garcia will almost certainly deploy the team in the 4-3-3 that he favored for all but two matches last year, per WhoScored.com.  A reborn Gervinho will man the left flank.  Iturbe, Alessandro Florenzi and Adem Ljajic will battle for time on the right.  Totti will likely anchor the center, with breakout star Mattia Destro supporting him.

    The midfield of Nainggolan, Miralem Pjanic and Daniele De Rossi will be a strength, even more so when Dutch international Kevin Strootman returns from a nasty knee injury.  Florenzi adds depth here as well.

    The defense could turn out to be an excellent group.  Mehdi Benatia was easily the best center-back in the league last year and is a candidate for signing of the season.  Leandro Castan will fight with Astori for playing time beside him.  

    The flanks may be weaker, with old hands Maicon and Cole holding down the fort.  Some depth may come on the left if Federico Balzaretti ever gets healthy again.  Florenzi was recently played at right-back during the International Champions Cup, adding even more depth to the lineup.

    The mercato has been great and the squad is strong, but there are obstacles for Roma.

    The first will be the draw.  Thanks to their two-year absence from Europe—and a three-year absence from the group stages of such competitions—Roma is likely destined for Pot 4 in the group-stage draw.  There are a few upsets in the remaining qualifying and playoff rounds that could keep them in Pot 3, but it's unlikely.  They are second-to-last in coefficient among the confirmed group-stage teams, and there are still 10 teams alive in the playoff round that score higher than the Giallorossi.

    In all likelihood, Roma will be in the bottom pot, putting them at major risk of a horror draw.  Coming out of Pot 4 could, for instance, see the club line up against Real Madrid, PSG and Liverpool.

    The second hurdle is a mental one.

    Over the last few years Roma have shown an alarming propensity for psychological breakdowns.  Last season may have been their best ever, but they certainly didn't show up for their biggest game.

    Arriving at the Juventus Stadium in January with first place in striking distance, the Giallorossi started the game with the lion's share of possession but ended it with their tails between their legs.  Arturo Vidal ripped them in two on the counter 17 minutes in, and Leonardo Bonucci scored moments after the opening whistle of the second half.

    It got worse from there, as De Rossi and Castan were sent off within 60 seconds of each other—the former for a horrible challenge from behind and the latter for handling the ball on the goal line.  Former Roma man Mirko Vucinic scored the resulting penalty, and Roma played out the last minutes of the 3-0 thrashing with nine men.

    As the season progressed and Juventus pulled further and further ahead, the team seemed to lose interest, even though they were still mathematically in the race.  After Juve pulled themselves to within one game of the title in early May, Roma capitulated in the most embarrassing way possible with a 4-1 loss to bottom side Catania.  That was followed by two more losses to end the season on a sour note.

    Roma has a great-looking side on paper, and Rudi Garcia is a great coach.  They are, however, mostly inexperienced at the Champions League level and remain questionable between the ears.  The strain of the Continent's highest competition isn't the only thing they'll have to deal with.  The domestic season will come with the pressure of being the prime challenger to an apparently vulnerable Juventus.  

    It's going to be a lot to deal with at one time.  Only time will tell if they can.

    So much of Roma's chances to get through the group stage depend on whether they can avoid a Group of Death draw.  If they manage to get an open group, they're as good a bet as any to get through.  If not, they'll likely be battling for third.  Regardless, they're going to be this year's version of that team that no one wants to face.

Napoli

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    Napoli beat Arsenal in the final group game but missed out on the knockout stage on goal difference.
    Napoli beat Arsenal in the final group game but missed out on the knockout stage on goal difference.Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

    Unlike Juventus' exit from last year's competition, which was an embarrassing affair, Napoli's fall to the Europa League came with their heads held high.  

    The Partenopei finished tied with Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal at 12 points.  The tiebreaker was head-to-head goal differential.  A single goal decided it—Arsenal got the second slot.

    They have a good squad, and in Rafael Benitez they have a coach who knows what it's like to win the Champions League.

    The downside to Benitez, though, is that he can sometimes be grating on his players.  A week ago Jose Callejon and Valon Behrami were both dismissed from training after a pair of angry rows.  Goal.com reported on Sunday that Behrami had clinched a move to Hamburg.  Benitez has since had to shout down talk of Callejon departing for Atletico Madrid.

    Even stranger is the case of Lorenzo Insigne.  An interview with Radio Kiss Kiss in Napoli (h/t Football Italia) showed friction between the native Napolitano and the club's fans.  When he came back from the World Cup he was repeatedly jeered at a team event, leading to rumors of a move.

    The team will likely continue along in the 4-2-3-1 formation Benitez has used throughout his career.  Gonzalo Higuain will again be the tip of the sword, with—if present—Insigne and Callejon on the wings and Marek Hamsik in the hole.

    A leaky defense is a mild concern, especially in Champions League play, but this is an up-and-down solid side and will again be a tough out.

    Napoli will be looking to arrive in the group stage through the playoff round, where they are already guaranteed a seeded position.  They will know their opponents on Friday.  Should they get through, Napoli will be locked into Pot 3.  It's a precarious position: They, like Roma, could get a very manageable draw or, as they did last year, a fantastically difficult one.

    Of the teams that are coming through the league route in qualifying, the only teams that could make Napoli sweat are Zenit St. Petersburg or Athletic Bilbao.  The Russians are going into the second leg of their qualifying tie against Cypriot side AEL Limassol but get the second leg at home and will undoubtedly be seeds if they go through.  Bilbao's seeding is to be determined, but even if they were drawn together Napoli would be expected to have an easy time beating them.

    Once things come down to the group stage, the draw will determine their fate as much as anything—if the lingering issues with the likes of Callejon and Insigne don't affect the team's makeup.

Fiorentina

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    Giuseppe Rossi will look to lead the team to a better European finish.
    Giuseppe Rossi will look to lead the team to a better European finish.Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

    Fiorentina is a team that can make some major noise in the Europa League—if they treat it as a proper competition rather than a distraction.

    The latter attitude is the one many Italian clubs express towards Europe's second-tier competition—which is one of the major reasons why their coefficient has dropped while countries like Germany and Portugal, who take the competition much more seriously, have flourished.

    Fiorentina didn't show any signs of deliberately slowing down last year.  They dominated their group, finishing with five wins and a draw out of six.  After easily dispatching Danish side Esbjerg, they were placed into an all-Italian tie with Juventus.

    A late equalizer in the first leg saw the Viola go into the second leg with the edge on away goals, but Andrea Pirlo's savage 71st-minute free kick—coupled with a red card to Gonzalo Rodriguez—saw them exit the competition.

    Fiorentina has one of Italy's brightest young coaches in Vincenzo Montella and a solid squad.  Consecutive summers of excellent transfer business has given them the likes of Giuseppe Rossi, Josip Ilicic and Mario Gomez in attack, Borja Valero bossing the midfield and Rodriguez and Stefan Savic in the center of defense.

    One place still up in the air on this roster is the goalkeeper position.  Neto is more secure than he was last season, but to make the leap to contend for a Scudetto an upgrade between the sticks would be a major plus.

    Tactically, Montella is a chameleon who shifts his tactics based on his matchups.  WhoScored recorded the use of a 4-3-3 (16 times), 4-3-2-1 (seven times), 4-1-2-1-2 (six times), 3-5-2 (five times) and a 3-5-1-1 (four times) over the course of the league season.

    If they are both healthy, Rossi and Gomez will be paired up front.  The two started out of the gate like gangbusters until Gomez injured his knee in the third game of the year and never fully recovered.  Rossi received a knee injury himself in January—a frightening thing given his history.  He did play to within inches of making the World Cup roster after his April return, so he should be considered healthy at the start.

    The injuries to their top strike pair were major blows to this side last year.  If they can keep them on the field this year, the Viola have a chance to make some real noise.

    Into the group stage by virtue of their runner-up finish in the Coppa Italia, Fiorentina will either be in Pot 1 or Pot 2 of the Europa League draw.  A lot will depend on who drops down from the Champions League and who makes it through the playoff round, but Fiorentina should be considered favorites to get out of whatever group they're drawn into.

Inter

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    Inter pushed Tottenham to the extreme in their last Europa outing but came up short.
    Inter pushed Tottenham to the extreme in their last Europa outing but came up short.Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

    A season away from Europe was helpful in starting Inter's rebuilding process.

    After a disastrous ninth-place finish under Andrea Stramaccioni two seasons ago, Inter brought in Walter Mazzarri to turn things around.  Helping him would be an infusion of cash—and fresh air—in the form of new principle owner Erick Thohir.

    The Nerazzurri maintained a European position almost the entire season, although they never truly challenged the top three.  They'll try to use this Europa League season as a chance to springboard themselves forwards again.

    Mazzarri's tactics are entirely based on a three-man defense.  His second-greatest weakness is that he has never looked to diversify that bag of tricks.

    His greatest weakness is that when something goes wrong, Mazzarri makes it very clear to the press that his tactics were not the problem.  The referee was poor, or the other team played dirty—the blame is never on his system.

    This petulance has held him and his teams back since his days with Napoli, where he had the talent to mount a real challenge against Juventus but never the mentality.

    Mazzarri did show a willingness late last season to tinker within the three-man framework, changing from the 3-5-1-1 that was seen almost exclusively through February to a 3-5-2 to incorporate young striker Mauro Icardi as a partner to his countryman Rodrigo Palacio.

    One player who will likely be key to Inter's chances domestically and abroad is Mateo Kovacic.  The 20-year-old Croatian was handed the No. 10 shirt on his arrival in January of 2012 but hasn't been played enough to show that he can truly be the playmaker Inter needs.  Mazzarri began to trust him more at the end of the season, and he played in all three of Croatia's World Cup matches, twice as a sub and once as a starter.  If he blossoms, Inter can start to really become a force again.

    Inter's fifth-place finish put them into the playoff round of the Europa League, where they are the top-seeded team based on coefficient.  They figure to be far superior to any team they're drawn against.  Assuming they advance, they would be a mortal lock for Pot 1, setting up a draw that they can certainly handle.  They look good bets to arrive in the knockout stages.

Torino

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    Alessio Cerci was inconsolable after missing a last-minute penalty that seemingly eliminated Torino from Europe—but fate was on their side.
    Alessio Cerci was inconsolable after missing a last-minute penalty that seemingly eliminated Torino from Europe—but fate was on their side.Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

    The end of the 2013-14 season could not have been more heartbreaking for Torino.  Needing a win to play in Europe for the first time in 12 years, Alessio Cerci was facing a stoppage-time penalty.  His shot went to the left—and was saved by Antonio Rosati.

    The miss condemned Torino to seventh and, it seemed, booted them from the Europa League.

    But Torino's stars were aligned.  When sixth-placed Parma failed to pay a bill on time, they were denied a European license by the FIGC, and Torino was granted Italy's final place in the Europa League.

    The Granata are now the only team in Italy playing competitive games.  They stormed to a 3-0 away win against Swedish side Brommapojkarna on July 31, setting up an easy second leg at the Stadio Olimpico in Turin.

    The team will hope that Cerci along with full-back Matteo Darmian and new striker Fabio Quagliarella are fully fit for the playoff round.  They were seeded for this round but are unlikely to be so in the playoff, so they'll need all their best players.

    Quagliarella arrives from crosstown rival Juventus to replace the departed Ciro Immobile, who took his league-leading 22 goals last season to Borussia Dortmund.  He comes with a ton of experience, having gone to the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2008 on top of two years of Champions League soccer at Juve.

    Two questions will determine how far Torino manages to go in this competition.  The first is the ever-present question of the draw.  The second is whether or not Cerci stays.  

    Without Immobile the club will need all the goals they can get.  Cerci has drawn significant interest on the transfer market, and coach Giampiero Ventura admitted to TuttoMercatoWeb.com (h/t Football Italia) on Monday that it would be difficult to turn down an "indisputable offer" for the player.

    Football Italia is also reporting, however, that team president Urbano Cairo has rejected another offer from AC Milan and is also considering tying Cerci to a five-year extension that would almost double the salary of his highest-paid player.

    Ventura, who is probably one of the most underrated coaches in Serie A, will likely be able to adapt to Cerci's loss, but if Torino want to be competitive in the Europa League, they'll need him in the side.  They'll go as far as he can take them in this competition.

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