Although the Serie A season has only just started, many yesterday will have taken a brief mental break from it and, holding their breath, will have awaited their European fate.
Once again Italy boasts four teams in Europe’s premier club competition. There is a return to Champions League action for Milan, after a year in the ‘slums’ of the now renamed UEFA Cup. Fiorentina will look to feature better than their attempt last season and maybe make it to the knock-out stages. Inter and Juventus complete the quartet, and more than ever these two will be chasing the silverware or at least the final stages of the competition.
Despite poor outings in Europe since they won the Champions League in 2007, Milan were the only Italian side in the top seed pot. This meant the Rossoneri would avoid the likes of holders Barcelona and all four of the Premiership teams. Inter and Juventus awaited their fate in the second seed pot, but would both be eager to top their groups regardless of the draw. Finally Fiorentina were in the third pot alongside teams of very similar calibre from Germany and Spain and the French champions Bordeaux.
Despite the ‘comfort’ of the top seed pot, Milan may have drawn the shortest straw as they were allocated to Group C alongside Marseille, Zürich and the most talked about club of the summer, Real Madrid. In the past few months the Merengues have been busy and with no regards to the price tags they have acquired some of the biggest names in European football – the one which of course makes this tie all the more appealing is that of Kaká. The former Milan golden boy will return to the San Siro a lot sooner than anyone would have expected, the greeting he will receive from the fans will be interesting but more importantly Leonardo’s new side will want to prove that they are just as fine without the former Ballon d’Or winner. Either way both legs will be huge and should be a must see game.
But Kaká will not be the only returning face to Milan. Having lead Inter to national domination in the past few seasons, Zlatan Ibrahimović decided to pursue his quest for the Champions League elsewhere – and this summer saw the shocking Ibrahimović-Samuel Eto’o swap between the Nerazzurri and Barcelona. The nature of his transfer makes it hard to expect a warm welcome for the Swede back to the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza from the Inter fans. Nevertheless both he and the Cameroonian forward will want to prove a point to their old clubs and this tie promises to be exhilarating as José Mourinho takes on, in the Catalan side, an old foe which he battled with plenty during his Chelsea days. These two sides are more than expected to fight it out for top spot in Group F as Dynamo Kyiv and Rubin Kazan complete the picture.
Juventus seem to have got off lighter than the Milanesi. Their biggest fixture will be the meeting with Bundesliga runners-up Bayern Munich. The side is struggling in their domestic championship but with the quality of Frank Ribéry and Italian hero Luca Toni they will always be tough opposition. The biggest threat, however, could well be from the Ligue 1 champions Bordeaux. The side ended the Lyon dynasty in France and did well in the summer to hold on to star player Yoann Gourcuff – it would not be such a surprise should the transalpine side earn one of the two qualifying spots. Israeli champions Maccabi Haifa complete Group A – the side will not have high expectations but their home games may be a threat to the other three.
Despite a fantastic setup, a great squad and a shrewd manager, there is something about Fiorentina which does not fit with the Champions League. Possibly it is their conduct in the summer months – by selling the likes of Felipe Melo to a direct rival they have unofficially admitted they are not yet ready to compete at this level. They will leave the talking to their performances, and the players will need to give absolutely everything if they are to stand a chance of making it out of the group. They will face in Liverpool in their biggest Champions League challenge to date – the Reds have started their English campaign terribly but Rafa Benítez is known to be one of the best when it comes to this competition. Lyon joins them and although they are no longer the side that monopolised the French domestic scene for almost a decade, they do have more pedigree than la Viola in this tournament. The Hungarian side Debrecen are the lowest UEFA ranked side out of the 32 teams competing – the two way tie with them must be see Cesare Prandelli’s boys take all six points if they want to make it through.
Juventus and Inter have had the better summers and they will be expected to proceed in the competition after all the hype surrounding them. No one from the peninsula has a stronger reputation than Milan when it comes to the Champions League, but with rookie Coach Leonardo the Rossoneri are still somewhat of an unknown quantity. Exit at the group stages would mean disaster for such a name so expect them to make it to the other side but not without a sweat. Fiorentina still do not seem to be of the calibre to compete regularly with the continent’s greats – they will struggle to finish in the top two and are more likely to try and secure the third spot and entry into the Europa League.
The bigger spending power of English and Spanish clubs appears to have left the Serie A sides lagging behind – with the exception of Milan, no Italian side has come within reaching distance of the top prize, and even the cycle of the Rossoneri seems to have come to an end. This writer would like to say how we are, after the summer spending of Inter and Juventus and with the everlasting pedigree of even a mismatched Milan side, on the verge of an Italian club’s renaissance – but unfortunately it still seems to be far fetched. Inter place themselves under too much pressure every year and always fail to deliver, whilst Milan and Juve have new young managers. Despite what Pep Guardiola achieved last season, the two sides do not appear to have the sting in the tail, the cutting edge that was provided last season by Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto’o. It would seem that this era of Italian football is not quite at maturation point yet. But good things come to those who wait – let us just hope we are not left waiting for too long.
Full Champions League group stage draw
GROUP A – Bayern Munich, JUVENTUS, Bordeaux, Maccabi Haifa
GROUP B – Manchester United, CSKA Moscow, Besiktas, Wolfsburg
GROUP C – MILAN, Real Madrid, Marseille, FC Zürich
GROUP D – Chelsea, Porto, Atlético Madrid, APOEL
GROUP E – Liverpool, Lyon, FIORENTINA, Debrecen
GROUP F – Barcelona, INTER, Dynamo Kyiv, Rubin Kazan
GROUP G -Sevilla, Rangers, Stuttgart, Unirea Urziceni
GROUP H – Arsenal, AZ Alkmaar, Olympiacos, Standard Liège