Can Serie A’s magnificent seven lift a European trophy?
Last season was a bittersweet one for Italian teams in Europe with three lost finals....
Last season was a bittersweet one for Italian teams in Europe with three lost finals. But, after seven out of seven made progress this year, Giancarlo Rinaldi assesses their chances of going one better in at least one competition.
It is never nice to get close to a prize and go away empty-handed. Inter, Roma and Fiorentina were all left with that sinking feeling last term after they fell at the final hurdle when European glory was within touching distance. But, with all its teams making it through to the latter stages this year, surely close but no cigar won’t cut it for Serie A this May and June.
For a league dismissed by many as a second-rate product, the 2022-23 campaign was seen as something of a sign of revival. The Nerazzurri, Giallorossi and Viola all produced an epic run in their respective competitions and could count themselves unlucky – in very different ways – not to pick up a trophy. This season has, so far, seen a continuation of that trend.
Simone Inzaghi’s side have picked up where they left off and look the most credible Italian contender to go deep into the Champions League. It was annoying that they failed to win their group and enjoy a better seeding but Atletico Madrid were not the worst opponents they could land. A return of Diego Simeone to the club where he once played (no, not Pisa) will be a testing but not impossible reunion. Indeed, some thought the Milanese side’s coach had seen the future when group winners Real Sociedad landed Paris St Germain as their last 16 opponents.
Last term, of course, it was Napoli who were many people’s dark horses to win the competition but they have been less convincing this season. They were reasonably comfortable qualifiers behind Real Madrid but they failed to produce the glorious football they did under Luciano Spalletti. However, there have been glimpses of Victor Osimhen and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia starting to return to their best which will give them hope. Barcelona look like a difficult but not insurmountable object – provided they can recapture the scintillating football they can produce.
It is harder, in truth, to feel much optimism for Lazio‘s prospects. They rarely hit great heights – Ivan Provedel’s heroics excepted – in getting through from a weakish group and now face an almighty mountain in the shape of Bayern Munich. The positive, if there is one, is that Maurizio Sarri has time to plan for that one and, hopefully, start to get the best out of his new acquisitions that have yet to truly shine.
Milan, of course, dropped down to the Europa League despite their epic comeback against Newcastle but the second-tier competition looks a much more plausible target for this particular squad. Stefano Pioli has had an up-and-down season, but there have been some hints that he is starting to understand how to use his summer arrivals better. They landed Rennes in the competition’s play-off draw and will be optimistic of seeing off a side in the bottom half of Ligue 1 at the time of writing. It would be ironic if a coach who has faced repeated calls for his head was to deliver a long-awaited European crown.
They were joined in the draw by Roma after the Giallorossi failed to win a pretty average-looking group, but nobody should underestimate Jose Mourinho’s side. They might not be all that much fun to watch but they know how to get results by one means or another. He will surely already have a plan in place to plot Feyenoord’s downfall, just don’t expect entertainment along the way. They undoubtedly have the players to make a decent tilt at the competition which eluded them last time around.
Their matches will be watched with interest by Atalanta who, thanks to their group-topping display, are already through to the last 16. Gian Piero Gasperini’s team came through undefeated and conceded just four goals – a total bettered only by Bayer Leverkusen. It was not so long ago that the Bergamaschi were stars of the Covid-hit Champions League and it would not be such a stretch to think they could do well. Perhaps Charles De Ketelaere might even cross paths with his parent club.
And, finally, there is Fiorentina. Last season’s heartache against the Hammers is still fresh in the memory but they have put that disappointment behind them to grind out a group win. It was not as impressive as their previous campaign but they got the job done and, like the boys from Bergamo, are through to the last 16 of the competition to await the play-off winners. The Conference League, as always, has a very mixed bunch of teams involved and the bookies favourites are, unsurprisingly, Aston Villa. Another match-up with English opposition in Athens would be a bit of a nightmare but also a chance for some measure of revenge. Vincenzo Italiano will hope to add some depth to his squad in January in order to continue to battle on two or three fronts. The chronic lack of a prolific goalscorer is his biggest headache but he has shown himself smart at finding solutions in the past.
It all means that, overall, things look quite bright for Serie A. They have high hopes of landing an extra Champions League spot as a result of their performances this year but a trophy would be even nicer. The top competition might be a step too far but the Europa League or Conference League look more manageable prospects. It would also confirm the upward trend that Italian teams have enjoyed of late. Taking things a little more seriously has started to produce results. Lifting a bit of silverware would be the amarena cherry on top of that particular cake.