Serie A: Tracking Italy's Performance in European Competition
With the playoff rounds looming, it is crunch time in the UEFA Champions League and Europa League, and Serie A is hoping to reach the group stage with all six of their entrants present.
Juventus and Roma earned berths in the Champions League group stage with their one-two finish last season. Fiorentina did likewise in the Europa League by virtue of finishing as runners-up in the Coppa Italia (winners Napoli had qualified for the Champions League). Because of that, we'll leave them be for the moment and focus on the three teams playing in the playoff rounds.
A lot is at stake for Napoli, Inter and Torino. The glory, the prize money and the precious coefficient points that deep European runs will bring will be on the mind of every player and coach.
What stands between these clubs and places in the group stage? Let's take a closer look and find out.
Napoli qualified directly for the group stage the last two times they made the Champions League, but this time they'll have to go through the playoff.
As the last of the seeds in the league route, the Partenopei were drawn against Spanish side Athletic Bilbao. This can be seen as a blessing and a curse.
Of all the unseeded teams in the pot, Bilbao is probably the strongest. They are well-coached by Ernesto Valverde and are relatively experienced in Europe, having reached the final of the Europa League 2011-12. They adjusted marvelously to the departure of long-standing star forward Fernando Llorente and picked up some impressive results, including a 1-0 victory over Barcelona in December and a 1-1 draw against Real Madrid two months later.
Aritz Aduriz paced the team in scoring, while Ander Herrera controlled the midfield. They won their Champions League place by a handy seven points—although they were 17 points off of third.
As good as Bilbao is, there are some things of which Napoli can take advantage. Herrera now plies his trade at Manchester United, and his departure deprives Bilbao of a major weapon. Look for Gokhan Inler and Marek Hamsik to exploit this and impose themselves on the battle for midfield.
Another weakness Rafael Benitez can exploit is Bilbao's inferior form on the road. The team was 13-4-2 (W-D-L) with a plus-24 goal differential at the San Mames last season but only 7-6-6 with a plus-three differential on their travels.
The Stadio San Paolo may be getting old, but it still affords Napoli a home-field advantage that is arguably the best in Serie A after Juventus Stadium. If they can capitalize on Bilbao's road weakness in the first leg and saddle them with a sizable deficit, it will lessen the challenge of playing in Spain a week later.
An often overlooked but no less important part of this matchup will be match fitness. Spain and Italy traditionally start their seasons two weeks later than the rest of Europe, which has caused problems for Italian clubs at this stage.
Before Milan advanced through the playoff last year, Italy had gone two years without doing so. Both times, Udinese had played their opponents quite evenly but conceded late goals that eventually dropped them into the Europa League. The difference in those ties was that their opponents—Arsenal in 2011 and Braga in 2012—had both already begun playing league games. Consequently, they had begun preseason training earlier and therefore had a key fitness advantage.
By drawing a Spanish team, that nagging concern has been eliminated, as neither side will be playing competitively before the tie begins.
This will be a stern test for Napoli, but it's one that, on paper anyway, they should be able to handle. Look for them to try to blow the lid off the Spaniards at the San Paolo. That will force Bilbao to chase the tie in the return leg and allow Napoli opportunities for counterattacks.
Expect three Italian teams in the group stage for the second consecutive year.
Inter followed their horror 2012-13 season by turning in a good rebound year under Walter Mazzarri. The team plugged a few defensive holes and saw the late-season emergence of striker Mauro Icardi and midfielder Mateo Kovacic supplement established contributors like Rodrigo Palacio and Yuto Nagatomo.
Inter were able to rebuild last year without having to split their focus between domestic and European games. Getting to the Europa League proper for the second time in three years will be the next step.
Their fifth-place finish last season would normally have put them into the third qualifying round. Fiorentina, however, got a bye to the group stage by making the Coppa Italia final, so Inter was moved up a round. They were already the most pedigreed and talented team in the draw, and Lady Luck did not disappoint them when the balls were drawn on Friday.
Their opponents will be Icelandic side Stjarnan. On paper, this should be easy pickings, but the gods of fitness may make themselves known. With 14 of 22 league games complete, Stjarnan are currently tied with FH for the league lead in the Urvalsdeild.
They have also fought through three rounds of competition to make it this far in the Europa League. The first qualifying round saw them hammer Welsh side Bangor City 8-0 on aggregate. They then played a thrilling tie against Scottish side Motherwell. A pair of 2-2 draws forced extra time before the Icelanders' midfielder Atli Johannsson decided it in the 114th minute.
In the third qualifying round they claimed another major upset. Drawn against European regulars Lech Poznan, Stjarnan pulled out a shock 1-0 victory at home in the first leg. They then pulled an even bigger shock by holding the Poles to a goalless draw at the INEA Stadion.
Stjarnan have played a lot of competitive games the last two months. Inter haven't played a game that meant something since May 18. That said, the talent gap here is more like a talent chasm. The Icelanders will have to draw deep into their bag of luck to get to the group stage. Expect Inter to go through comfortably.
The only Serie A team to play a game that means something this season, Torino are in Europe for the first time in 12 years. They very nearly weren't here after Alessio Cerci missed a last-second penalty to drop them into sixth place. But Parma's failure to pay a bill on time saw them fail to get a UEFA license from FIGC, giving Il Toro a second life.
If their play in preseason and the Europa League so far are anything to go on, they mean business in their return.
The Granata are fresh off a 7-0 aggregate thumping of Swedish club Brommapojkarna and were then drawn with Croatian side RNK Split.
Croatia started league play a month ago, so the Italians will again be on the short side of the fitness gap. RNK's roster is mostly domestic, and they are currently sitting fourth in the HNL through four rounds of play.
Like Inter's Icelandic opponents, RNK have battled through three rounds to make it to the playoff. They saw off Armenian side Mika 3-1 on aggregate in the first leg, then made a 2-1 first-leg win stand up against Israeli side Hapoel Be'er Sheva.
In the third qualifying round, the team again made the first-leg score stand as the aggregate, beating Chornomorets Odesa 2-0 at home and seeing out a goalless draw in the return.
Torino will be a tougher team than anything the Croatians have seen in the tournament so far. Giampiero Ventura is, in this writer's opinion, the most underrated coach in Italy. Cerci, who missed the third qualifying round with an injury, will likely be available barring any transfer activity. Fabio Quagliarella, who was purchased from Juventus to replace the departed Ciro Immobile, will have had a few more weeks to get himself settled.
RNK will be a challenge for Torino. The edge on paper is in the hands of the Italians, but this could turn into one of those tricky ties where anything can happen. For what its worth, Torino have been red hot in preseason preparations, which carried over into their tie against the Swedes. If forced, say you think Torino will win—but this tie will be one to watch.
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