Assi di Coppe: Inter Miss UCL Knockout Stages Train

This weeks’ UEFA Champions League roundup sees three Italian sides through the knockout stages but perhaps not exactly the teams you’d expected.

Inter-Barcelona 1-2

Inter went into the game against Barcelona knowing that only a win would aid them in their attempts to progress.

A weakened Barcelona starting eleven offered no solace to Inter Milan’s hopes of European qualification. Both sides lined up with the anticipated five at the back, with wing-backs either side of a midfield trio. Inter Milan dominated early possession and even had the ball in the net through a ferocious Romelu Lukaku drive, the effort was rightfully ruled offside. The Belgian was guilty of missing another key opportunity as Inter Milan won the ball back in midfield and Matias Vecino put Lukaku in on goal.

As the game progressed Barcelona attempted to counter on their opponents attacking efforts and finally went ahead after a neat through ball from Antoine Griezmann was cushioned onto Carles Perez’s path by Arturo Vidal. Perez made no mistake with his first time effort and Barcelona took the lead against the run of play. Barcelona grew into the game after going ahead, seeing more of the ball and even missing what was arguably the best chance of the game through Clément Lenglet.

Inter got just what they needed at the end of the first half as Lautaro Martinez held off his man and laid Lukaku off for an important goal. With the sides’ level at half time and the atmosphere in the San Siro growing, expectation was rife. The second half didn’t produce as many chances as they would have hoped for but Lukaku will again rue his luck after holding Jean Clair Todibo off in the opponents’ box and hammering an effort against Barcelona keeper, Neto. With the match slipping away Inter seemed to draw further within themselves culminating in Barcelona’s new prospect Ansu Fati getting his first European goal. A win would have seen Inter through in respect of Borussia Dortmund’s goal difference but it was not to be. The Nerazzurri will enter the Europa League knockout stage.

Napoli-Genk 4-0

The job at Stadio San Paolo was fairly clear, win against Genk and Napoli would reach the knockout rounds of the Champions League. Whether the Azzurri could capture a first-place finish would be dependent on Liverpool’s visit to Red Bull Salzburg.

After what seems like an eternity of controversy in the off field antics at Napoli, they restored a good deal of calm and positivity in a rampant, no-mistakes showing at home to Genk. The Italians secured their passage to the next round of European football in style. Genk goalkeeper Maarten Vandevoordt, the youngest goalkeeper in the competition at 17, was given no time to settle. After watching a near post header from Kalidou Koulibaly crash against the frame of his goal, the young Belgian goalkeeper was put under pressure with a pass by his own defence, Arkadiusz Milik capitalised on the failure to clear and wrapped in an early goal.

Milik’s opener settled nerves and got the Italians in full stride as he superbly met Giovanni Di Lorenzo’s cross for his and his teams second of the night. A foul on José Callejon just before the end of the first half offered Milik a chance to make history from the penalty spot, the Pole made no mistake, becoming the first Napoli player to score a hat trick in the Champions League.

Deep into the second half Genk’s evening got even worse as a block inside the area, adjudged to be a handball, resulted in a penalty. Dries Mertens’ panenka made this a night to forget for young Vandevoordt as Napoli sailed through with their biggest Champions League win. Napoli go through as runners up in Group E.

Shakhtar Donetsk-Atalanta 0-3

After having lost their first three games in Group C, Atalanta’s Champions League debut was quickly becoming an embarrassing affair. It was a surprise then that in the last round of group fixtures the Italians still stood a chance of progressing. Progression would clearly be very difficult as a trip to the Metalist stadium in Ukraine was hard enough, needing a win was different matter altogether.

Shakhtar Donetsk went closest initially, as a dangerous Junior Moraes found his header palmed away by a fine Pierluigi Gollini save. This proved to be the best chance in an otherwise hard fought first half lacking in real opportunities.

After the break, Atalanta grew into the game, sensing a real opportunity for themselves. Luis Muriel ambitious long range free kick drew a fine save from Shakhtar’s Andriy Pyatov, before the Colombian was very lucky not to be sent off for late challenge while already on a yellow card. Atalanta made the most of their luck as they finally found the net through Timothy Castagne. Papu Gomez had squared a timely assist only to be flagged offside before VAR intervened to reinstate the goal. Fortune was once more on Atalanta’s side as Shakhtar defender Dodo saw red for what seemed at most an act of petulance.

With 13 minutes on the clock and Shakhtar down to 10 the game was there for the taking for Atalanta and the Italians did just that. A Ruslan Malinovsky corner was met at the near post by Mario Pasalic who swept in to all but guarantee an exceptionally unlikely passage to the next round for Atalanta. The Bergamaschi’s good fortune was not quite finished as a terrible Taras Stepanenko error in the Shakhtar defence gave Robin Gosens an injury time goal to complete a quite sensational evening. Atalanta, astonishingly, go through to the knockouts stages of the Champions League and will take real heart from this turn of events.

Bayer Leverkusen-Juventus 0-2

Having already guaranteed their passage to the knockout stage as group winners, Juventus were in no mood to let up away to German side Bayer Leverkusen. With the Germans needing a win to remain in contention for progression the impetus was really on them to win the game.

An incisive ball by Danilo put Gonzalo Higuain within sight of goal in the 11th minute, the Argentinian choosing to unselfishly square the ball to Cristiano Ronaldo who couldn’t quite connect with it. As the half progressed Bayer Leverkusen began trying to exert pressure, coming very close with a spectacular long range effort by Moussa Diaby crashing off the post. Five years since Bayer Levekusen last won three Champions League games in a row, and that seemed set to continue as Kai Havertz was denied by a fantastic Merih Demirel block.

As news filtered through of Atletico Madrid’s lead the German side seemed lose confidence in their chances of progression. Juventus took advantage of the lull in Bayer Leverkusen’s rhythm as Paulo Dybala found CR7 in a pass across the box for the number 9 to put away his 128th Champions League goal. Another assist for Dybala in injury time, this time for his fellow countryman Gonzalo Higuain gave Juventus another victory and will only aid their confidence as they strode through to the next round of European football.

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