Juventus’ shock exit to Portuguese giants Benfica in the semi-finals of the Europa League finally brought the European participation of Italian clubs to an end.
The 0-0 draw in Turin saw Benfica progress 2-1 on aggregate, with Juventus manager Antonio Conte criticising English referee Mark Clattenburg for failing to award a penalty when Fernando Llorente’s header appeared to strike Luisao on the hand.
It will be a bitter blow for the Italian giants who had been hoping to lift the trophy in their own stadium later this month, but that final will now consist of the Portuguese side and Sevilla.
Not since 1999 have Italy had a representative in the final, with Parma thumping Marseille 3-0 on that occasion, and seven years have now passed since AC Milan prevailed on the European scene by beating Liverpool 2-1 in the Champions League.
Juventus had earlier been dumped unceremoniously from the elitism of the Champions League, having been beaten by a Wesley Sneijder goal in snowy Istanbul to progress at their expense and would eventually be beaten by Chelsea in the quarter-finals.
Napoli had been tipped as possible dark horses for the tournament given the purchase of Gonzalo Higuain and loaning of Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina, but in a group with Arsenal and last season’s runners-up Borussia Dortmund always faced a stern fight for progression.
They had moments of glory – the 2-1 win over Dortmund was stunning as was the 2-0 triumph over the Gunners – but like Juventus were forced to drop out of the highest level.
Porto then knocked Rafael Benitez’s side from the Europa League with a 3-2 aggregate win, but the signs of improvement were promising given the transfer of star man Edinson Cavani to Paris St Germain the previous summer.
AC Milan flew the flag for Serie A through to the knockout stages, having finished second in a group of Barcelona, Ajax and Celtic.
However, finalists Atletico demonstrated their growing might by producing a display of power and panache, edging the first leg at the San Siro 1-0 before blitzing the Rossoneri 4-1 back at the Vincente Calderon.
Diego Costa was the star, and endeared himself to a lot of possible suitors with three goals over the two games, including a brace in the second game. How Milan, who were uninspired and languid with Mario Balotelli as the spearhead, could of needed Costa on that occasion.
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