Who would have expected that it was going to be the Italian clubs playing in the second continental tournament to save the national honor in this first international round of the season?
After our Champions League clubs put together some disappointing performances between Tuesday and Wednesday, Serie A clubs playing in the Europa League on Thursday night totally rocked it by collecting three wins in three games.
Back in the glorious old ‘90s, where European football competitions were three and not two, and the UEFA Cup was the ancestor of current Europa League, that would have been a normal scenario: Italian clubs used to dominate the competition, and brought the cup home six times in seven years between 1989 and 1996.
But those days are long gone, and since the beginning of the new century our clubs have been known for pretty much snubbing the tournament. As a result, no Italian side has showed up further than the Semi Finals since 2000 – which makes last night’s exploit even more exciting and encouraging.
It was a morale boost for a national ego battered after Juventus’ unexpected setback against Barcelona in their Champions League seasonal debut.
The same night, Roma drove Atletico Madrid to a goalless draw, mostly thanks to the saves of their Brazilian goalkeeper Alisson Becker. That coach Eusebio Di Francesco tried to keep the dangerous Spanish squad under control is understandable, but you would have expected something more from Roma when playing at home ground Stadio Olimpico. The retour match against Atletico at their brand new Wanda Metropolitano stadium will be a different story, and the six goals scored by Chelsea in the other match of Group C are a red flag.
Napoli did even worse than that the following night, as they unexpectedly fell in Ukraine against Shakhtar Donetsk, in a match that the blue jerseys should have taken the most out of. Napoli was betrayed by goalkeeper Pepe Reina, whose mistake propitiated Shakhtar’s second goal, but the full team played well below expectations. If what seen in the other match of the group is true – with Manchester City routing Feyenoord with three goals in the first 25 minutes – the Dutchies will be a piece of cake, but Manchester City will pose a different kind of threat. In view of that, it would have been fundamental for Napoli to come back home from Ukraine with some points.
And then Europa League clubs came to the rescue on Thursday night…
Mention of honor for little Atalanta, who couldn’t have dreamed a better comeback in Europe after 26 years. The Nerazzurri simply annihilated an Everton that looked fearsome on paper. The Bergamo club scored 3 goals in in the last 15 minutes of the first half, and then easily controlled the game in the second. Alejandro “Papu” Gomez, Atalanta’s star, made his debut on the European stage and enlightened it with a blast that brought his side on 2-0, after redeemed Andrea Masiello – someone who’s living a second youth at Atalanta after his involvement in a match fixing scandal – had given Bergamaschi the lead. Bryan Cristante, an unbloomed talent looking for new chances in Bergamo, fixed the score to 3-0. Totally unexpected, and totally exciting. The only missing thing for La Dea’s ecstatic supporters was the home ground, as the team had to move to Sassuolo’s Mapei Stadium for their European campaign.
However, here’s a cautionary tale for Atalanta, which will need to balance well their energies between Serie A and Europa League. The European endeavors may eventually take a toll on their domestic run – as it happened last year right with Sassuolo, another provinciale who had a flawless Europa League start.
There’s no doubt about the fact that, whenever the stage is international, Milan’s Rossoneri always transform into a somewhat different team. A better one, in most cases. Just a few days ago, the Milan side had experienced a humiliating 1-4 defeat at the hands of Lazio. But as soon as they step foot outside of Italy, they regained their momentum and scored a cinquina in Vienna against the local side. Austria Wien proved to be a pretty comfortable obstacle, but Vincenzo Montella’s change to a 3-5-2 module was successful and gave striker Andre Silva the chance to shine: 3 goals for the Portuguese winger last night, well supported by Hakan Calhanoglu, who also scored his first Rossoneri goal and dispensed multiple assists.
Later on in the night, Lazio completed the Italian triplet by winning 3-2 a hard-fought match in Arhnem against Dutch team Vitesse. Coach Simone Inzaghi’s boys pulled it out despite 7 changes in the starting lineup versus their previous Serie A match, and after having been at a disadvantage twice in the game. To save the day, once again, was 21-year-old midfielder Alessandro Murgia – already a decisive man in his squad’s recent victory against Juventus in the Italian Supercup.
Three very important and well-deserved points for Lazio, but Group K rivals Nice, who won 5-1 in Belgium against Zulte Waregem – with some good contribution from, guess who’s back, Italian bad boy Mario Balotelli – are scary.