Five Italian clubs learned their European fate last Friday in Switzerland, with the three Champions League participants and two Europa League entrants not given easy pairings, but ties they will feel confident in progressing from.
The Champions League hosts two Anglo-Italian battles, starting with Napoli against Chelsea. The London side has struggled for consistency under Andre Villas-Boas and the Coach has come in for heavy criticism, especially for his defensive structure. The high line initially utilised did not suit their personnel centrally, exposing John Terry and David Luiz. Napoli will aim to take advantage of any deficiencies with the lethal attacking trident of Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi looking to cause damage.
The creativity of Lavezzi up against Juan Mata could be a deciding factor. Another intriguing battle comes out wide, with the hard running duo of Christian Maggio and Ashley Cole set to go head-to-head. Should Daniel Sturridge continue to impress, Paolo Cannavaro and his defensive troops will have to keep a watchful eye. The tie will begin at the Stadio San Paolo, where the passionate crowd has given the Partenopei such a lift already this season. Their form may be unpredictable domestically, but Napoli will be ready for the big occasion.
Milan and Arsenal also clash, with the Gunners having never been knocked out by an Italian side over two legs. Milan failed in their quest at the same stage in 2007/08, beaten 2-0 on aggregate. Arsenal overcame Udinese in their bid to make the group stage but in the weeks that followed they struggled badly. All that has been forgotten in the past few months, with Robin van Persie leading the way up front. His goals have propelled Arsenal up the Premier League table and his dual with Thiago Silva and Alessandro Nesta will be one to watch.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s European pedigree has been called into question on numerous occasions, but the Swede is not the big-game slouch he is made out to be. He has hurt Arsenal before, when at Barcelona, and Milan will be looking to their leading marksman to do what he does best. Who partners Ibrahimovic is something Massimiliano Allegri is working on, with Antonio Cassano out and both Alexandre Pato and Robinho inconsistent.
Inter looked to have received the easiest draw on paper, but will be aware Marseille came through a difficult group that contained Arsenal, exciting German champions Borussia Dortmund and perennial qualifiers Olympiakos. By winning away in Dortmund to seal progression, the French side proved their mettle. Inter are still not at their best but recent performances have been encouraging, with five wins from their past six domestically and increased involvement from their younger players. The fitness of Wesley Sneijder will be crucial for Claudio Ranieri, who must watch out for opponents such as Loric Remy and Captain Steve Mandanda, not to mention Coach Didier Deschamps, no stranger to calcio.
The Europa League draw appears kinder to Udinese than Lazio on paper, with the Stadio Friuli outfit drawing PAOK and the capital club against Atletico Madrid. However, the Greek side showed they cannot be taken lightly with an away win at Tottenham. A strong start to the group stage got Udinese over the line, as they took seven of their nine points in the first three matches. Meanwhile, Lazio faces the side Udinese beat once and were thumped 4-0 by. A less than inspiring group stage saw the capital club only seal second spot on the final matchday and thanks to Vaslui’s slip-up at already eliminated Zurich. One thing both Francesco Guidolin and Edy Reja must take into consideration is ensuring for two matches the strongest line-up starts, often not the case in the group stage.
Of course, all this is hypothetical for now, with the matches not to be played until February. The January transfer window, form and player availability can all alter teams until the resumption of European competition. Yet looking at the draw, the Italian sides will all fancy their chances at advancing to the next stage.
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