UEFA Champions League: Can Inter, Milan or Roma Make a Mark for Italy?
It seems like a ridiculous thing to say from the nation which boasts the current European club champions, but morale is low in the Italian camp.
Serie A has already had Sampdoria snipped from its Champions League delegation and there are fears that worse results might be in store. Weekend displays by the remaining trio did little to boost national confidence.
Could this be the worst year ever for Italy in the continental game?
Victorious Internazionale have kept their squad largely intact and still boast a powerful side. They should, by rights, be among the favourites to pick up the trophy. Yet, there is a nagging doubt at the back of the mind of the Nerazzurri.
How much of their glory was down to Jose Mourinho?
New boss Rafa Benitez has picked up a poisoned chalice, taking over from a man who secured a historic treble. He has already missed out on the European Super Cup and domestic form has been scratchy. The former Liverpool supremo will need time to make his mark, of course, but just how long will he be given?
Inter's group does not look impossible but nor is it the most straightforward. If you wanted a selection of middle-tier teams, any of which could pose you problems, then you need look no further: Twente, Werder Bremen, and Tottenham are not likely to be pushovers. Equally, they should all be beatable for a side which saw off all comers last term.
First up for the Nerazzurri are the Dutch champions, who have also changed the man in charge: Steve McClaren departed for Wolfsburg in the summer and has handed over the reins to Michel Preud'homme.
He has clearly transmitted his goalkeeper's defensive instincts to his team as they have conceded just one goal in their opening five Eredivisie matches. But surely it is still a big step up from domestic football in the Netherlands to Europe's elite.
Werder and Spurs have both had indifferent starts to their league campaigns, perhaps affected by having an eye on the Champions League. Sampdoria can attest to how tricky the German side are, while the English outfit showed in their second leg against Young Boys just how dangerous they can be. Either one has the definite potential to trip up Inter.
Moreover, the boys in blue and black are still waiting for some of last year's heroes to hit top speed. Diego Milito is short of goals and Wesley Sneijder has not had the same influence.
If they don't step up, there could be problems ahead. However, they must be confident of at least make the next round.
Inter progress rating: 70 percent.
On the other side of the city sits a footballing conundrum: Milan boast one of the proudest records of all in European football but they have struggled to live up to that reputation lately. A squad packed with veterans should have been pepped up by the arrival of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho in recent weeks.
Much will depend on which version of the Rossoneri turns up—if it is the disjointed and tactically desperate side which appeared at the Stadio Dino Manuzzi, they might as well surrender now.
But if they can somehow produce a set-up to get the best out of Alexandre Pato, they might yet be a force to be reckoned with.
Unfortunately for new boss Max Allegri, they landed a stinker in the group draw. With Real Madrid and Ajax for company, this is a real gathering of the European elite. Jose Mourinho is still working his magic on the Spanish side and the Amsterdam outfit may not be the force of yesteryear but, nonetheless, they represent a difficult obstacle for Milan.
That is not to forget their final group opponents, Auxerre. They have yet to win a league game this season, proving to be draw specialists, but they will have taken heart from the way Cesena picked apart Milan.
If they can keep a good shape and exploit the lack of tracking-back done by the likes of Ibra and Ronaldinho, they could well spring a surprise.
At the heart of Milan's issues is the enormous gap still left between attack and midfield and defence. Unless they find a way to sort that out, they will always remain vulnerable to an athletic and organised opponent.
Milan progress rating: 55 percent.
The last Italian shot at glory will come from Roma, who suffered a 5-1 hammering at the hands of Cagliari at the weekend. They played much of that match with ten men and will hope to produce better in Europe.
And, on paper at least, they have landed luckiest of the Serie A sides.
Last year's losing finalists Bayern Munich represents a stern test and the Bundesliga superpower saw off both Juventus and Fiorentina before succumbing to Inter. They may have stuttered on the home front, with goals proving hard to come by, but few will seriously think they will not make it through to the knockout stages.
Claudio Ranieri's men will hope to gather the lion's share of their points against Swiss side Basel and Romanian minnows FC Cluj. Neither look like an irresistible opponent, although the team from across the border are in decent form both domestically and in Champions League qualification. A potential Italian link, however, has been avoided by Cluj, who have sacked coach Andrea Mandorlini, who must have been looking forward to testing himself against the Giallorossi.
The club from Italy's capital have a fair amount of European experience, which they will need to use if they hope to progress. Their league form has been poor so far but they have a squad which is capable of getting them through to the last 16.
Whether it can go much further, however, is open to debate.
It has been another slow start season for Roma. They will need to get out of the block better in the Champions League than they have in Serie A, otherwise their chances could be over before they get started.
Roma progress rating: 65 percent.
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