And then there were two…After the round of 16 in both the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League, just Juventus Football Club and SSC Napoli remain as Calcio’s representative in European competition. From a contingent of seven teams, only the Bianconerri and the Partenopei remain, proving these two are indeed the best two teams in Italy.
Last week, Roma crumbled under the Porto pressure to go out with a whimper, costing manager Eusebio di Francesco his job and ushered in the return of Roma born and bred Claudio Ranieri, who himself, recently got the sack as well at Fulham. Probably even worse, was Inter’s elimination at the hands of Eintracht Frankfurt. After a 0-0 draw in Germany, which included a missed penalty from Marcelo Brozovic, they lost 1-0 at home. It was not necessarily that they got knocked out, but how.
The Giallorossi carried a 2-1 first leg lead to the Dragao, and made amateur errors, to lose 3-1 on the night and 4-3 on aggregate, as the memories of last season’s semi-final run was a distant memory. The Nerazzurri, missing the still “injured” Mauro Icardi and the suspended Lautaro Martinez, began their second leg at the Guiseppe Meazza, with Keita Balde, who just returned from injury. They were slow off the blocks, Stefan De Vrij made a horrendous error and Luka Jovic punished the Dutch international, to send il Biscione crashing out.
Juventus and Napoli are in the Quarter-Finals in their respective competitions, and if the wait for an Italian winner in the Champions League since 2010 and the Europa League since 1999 is to end, they will need to do it.
Even getting to the last eight was a task in itself for both clubs…
La Vecchia Signora had to mount a comeback from 0-2 down to Atletico, normally deemed insurmountable, however, they played their best game in years. Cristiano Ronaldo grabbed a hat-trick and he rightly deserves an immense amount of credit for his performance. Apparently, he had predicted as much, as former team-mate and ex-Juve player Patrice Evra has since posted a whatsapp conversation, he and the Portuguese international had recently.
Also, of note, was the club’s social media accounts, which launched a campaign in the build up to the second leg, with the hashtag #GetReadyToComeback . It was appreciated by some, mocked by others, but whether or not it had any affect on the Juve players on Tuesday night in Turin, it was keeping with the club’s vision of becoming more and more visible to a wider audience.
From the onset, the two time European champions, were like a rabid dog chasing a bone. They pressed high up the pitch, sometimes leaving just two or three of their defenders in their own half. It worked to a tee and they soon had the ball in the net, as Giorgio Chiellini scored from a rebound off a corner,however, the referee ruled that Ronaldo had fouled the goalkeeper in the build up, and it was chalked off.
The home side were not to be denied though, as Ronaldo rose over Juanfran to head home to set his side on their way. Atletico were uncharacteristically porous in defense, the bedrock on what their success has been in the Diego Simeone era. Early on in the second half, the tie was all square, as Ronaldo again scored with another header. Joao Cancelo crossed and even with a crowded penalty box, the five time European Cup winner was the one who met the ball, headed it towards goal, Jan Oblak saved it, but with the use of goal-line technology, it was confirmed that the ball crossed the line.
Score one for technology, and that should quiet the naysayers who are against it.
One of Piedmont’s clubs most exciting prospects is Moise Kean. The 19-year scored a brace in the club’s last game versus Udinese and won a penalty and he was brought on for Mario Mandzukic and less than a couple of minutes later, he had a great chance. Chiellini sent a ball that completely bypassed the entire Atletico defense and with just the goalkeeper to beat, the Vercelli born player, scuffed his shot just wide.
However, just a few minutes later, Juve got the goal that they needed. Federico Bernadeschi, who was a torn in the side of the Los Rojiblancos defenders all night, drove into the box, cut inside and Angel Correa pushed the former Fiorentina player and the penalty was given. Ronaldo lives for these moments…Ronaldo wants these moments…Most importantly, Ronaldo thrives in these moments…
He duly dispatched the spot kick, giving Oblak no chance as the keeper went the opposite side! There was never any doubt was there???
The encounter was signed, sealed and delivered by the Madeira born star and he sent his club to the next round. Last season, he sent them crashing out with a late penalty, this year, in 2019, he did the opposite.
Juve’s reward for their incredible comeback is a meeting with Ajax, whom they have met in two European Cup finals, losing in 1973 and winning in 1996.
708 kms away in Salzburg and almost 48 hours later, Napoli carried a handy 3-0 lead against Red Bull Salzburg. However, I told everyone who I talked too, this tie was far from over and it proved to be the case.
Not only was the Campanians missing their best three center backs, Raul Albiol with injury and Kalidou Koulibaly & Nikola Maksimovic through suspension, but just last season, this same Austrian club knocked out Lazio at a similar stage, after losing by 3-1 in the first leg in Rome.
Napoli needed an early strike to if nothing else, calm the nerves of the players, and it arrived courtesy of Arkadiusz Milik, scoring a spectacular bicycle kick from just five yards out, after the home team failed to clear a cross from Mario Rui.
Salzburg, re-named after the energy drink company took it over in 2005, got one back before the break. Allan, arguably, Napoli’s most consistent performer in recent times, gave the ball away in his own half, it found it’s way to Moanes Dabour, and he finished inside the box.
Carlo Ancelotti may have had flashbacks of La Coruna in 2004, when his Milan team took a 4-1 first leg lead in the Champions League, to crumble 4-0 to Deportivo and throw away their chance at back to back European Cups.
Soon after, the away side came close to going ahead again, as Fabian Ruiz hit a shot from 30 yards, but it hit the post. Napoli would not come so close again for the rest of the match. The teams headed to the interval at 1-1, and the team talks would have been interesting in the locker rooms.
As expected the Austrians came out flying from the break, and 20 minutes later they took the lead for the first time. Ulmer stormed down the left, sent in an inviting cross and Fredrik Gulbrandsen was there to guide the ball into the net. At this point, Napoli were pushed right back on the edge of their own penalty, defending with two blocks of four, leaving Dries Mertens and Milik up front to feed off scraps.
The time now reached the 90th minute, it was stoppage time and Salzburg struck again. Christoph Leitgeb picked up the ball inside the Napoli area from a free-kick and calmly slotted the ball between Kevin Malcuit’s legs and into the goal. There were five minutes added on at the end of the match, but Napoli held on in the end to book their spot in the next round.
It was not pretty or stylish, but Carletto’s team got the job done, but despite missing key players in defense, they will need to be more professional if they are to harbour any hope of a first European trophy for 30 years.
The draw for the Quarter-Finals were held earlier today, and Napoli were paired with Arsenal, as glamorous as tie as there is in the Europa League this year.
So, we are at the business end of the European football season, and the next round of fixtures are a month away and it will be a hectic time for teams involved, which includes an international break as well. As Juventus are virtually guaranteed another Scudetto and Napoli safe in the top four for next season, I expect both teams to go all out for European glory and rotate their squads as such.
Can the long awaited wait for European glory for Italian teams end?
Well, it is up to the two best teams currently in Calcio to break the curse.