The summer trial of European competitions preliminary rounds is over and, for the first time in many years, the Italian contingent didn’t lose any participant along the way.
Only two teams from Belpaese had to cut their holidays short and start playing official matches earlier to gain their ticket to the Football Grand Ball, but this year the road was smooth and the journey a safe one.
AC Milan completed their crossing of the desert – a three-year absence from European competitions – after having to go through the ordeal of two Europa League preliminary rounds. Their opponents, Universitatea Craiova from Romania and FK Shkendija from Macedonia – did oppose little resistance and consequently the matches, especially those played at home ground San Siro, turned into a joyful celebration of the Rossoneri’s comeback to the main football stage.
Napoli’s task, a preliminary round against French side Nice to gain access to the Champions League group stage, looked more dangerous on paper. The team from the Riviera included in their lineup Italian wild boy Mario Balotelli and Dutch star Wesley Sneijder. Plus, the Neapolitans had displayed an alarming allergy to Champions League preliminaries in the past – with two eliminations out of two previous attempts. But this time, coach Maurizio Sarri’s squad accomplished the task with a double 2-0 win, showing a team cohesion that will prove helpful even in the upcoming Serie A season.
With 6 games played, 6 wins, 14 goals scored and none conceded, Napoli and AC Milan joined respectively, Juventus and Roma in Champions League, and Lazio and Atalanta in the second European competition. Earlier this week, all teams took part in the traditional Russian roulette of the group stage draw, which assigned them their next European duties.
In the Champions League draw ceremony, Roma’s heart and soul Francesco Totti was among the former football stars enlisted to pick the balls. The Capitano did play a nice trick against lifetime rivals Juventus by delivering them Barcelona as their main opponents in Group D. Totti’s reaction after picking up the Blaugrana’s ball from the urn quickly became viral among Italian football fans:
Too bad that things went even worse for his own Roma, whose rivals in Group C include Chelsea and Atletico Madrid. The English side trained by Antonio Conte is hungry for victory after having spent the last European season watching the games from home. Atletico’s two runs up to the Final in the last four editions speak for themselves. Azeri debutant squad Qarabag were the most shocking surprise of the preliminary rounds, but will likely have a very hard time in such a group.
Conversely, Juventus’ other playmates in Group D look less fearful: Olympiacos from Greece and Portuguese Sporting Lisboa have a well-respected football tradition but seem to be one step lower than the Italian and Spanish powerhouses.
And Napoli? Maurizio Sarri’s squad landed in Group F, and were paired against Manchester City from the UK, Dutch champions Feyenoord – a face not seen around for quite some time – and Ukrainian national title holders Shakhtar Donetsk, which on the contrary are a loyal customer of the Champions League group stage. Our gut feeling tells that Napoli can make it through.
Yesterday’s Europa League draw also sparked mixed emotions for the Italian teams involved.
Let’s talk a little bit about poor Atalanta: Italy’s Regina delle Provinciali concluded last Serie A with a stunning 4th place, which granted them direct access to the Europa League 26 years after their last – pretty successful – European campaign. Nerazzurri supporters will surely thrill at the idea of facing world class players such as Wayne Rooney from Everton and Nabil Fekir from Lyon, but the chances of surviving Group E, which also includes Cyprus’ Apollon Limassol, are honestly slim.
AC Milan were luckier: There’s a lot of history and tradition in Group D, which features Austria Wien, AEK Athens from Greece and Croatian side Rijeka, but the Chinese-owned Milan squad seems to be of a different category, despite still being a work-in-progress.
In Group K, Lazio will face a scorned Nice, just relegated from the Champions League preliminaries and likely hungry for Italian scalps. Other opponents will force the Biancocelesti to take a couple trips to the European Lowlands – being Belgium’s Zulte Waregem and Netherlands’ Vitesse. If Lazio takes the Europa League commitment seriously – something that Italian teams have often failed to do in the past – they should be able to make it to the Round of 32.