A tournament they once dominated, Italian sides have fallen out of love with the
competition. In the late-90’s, Italian sides had a history of success in the UEFA Cup and the Cup Winner’s Cup, the merger of both competitions into one over-inflated club competition ended Italian football’s love-affair with the UEFA Cup.
As it’s been said many times before – for teams from multiple-European leagues – the Europa
League has too many teams, too many games with too little financial reward. In Italy it’s no different. But perhaps Italy’s past can reignite its European future.
With the likes of Juventus, Napoli, AC Milan, Fiorentina, Udinese, Inter, Roma Lazio all
chasing Champions League spots in Serie A (in addition to any surprise challengers like Sampdoria and Palermo were in 2010) those playing in the Europa League have seen it as a distraction. Top players are rested, supporters are not responsive, television ratings, television revenues and match-day revenues are low, as it is in many countries with the Europa League.
However Italy’s past may show a map to its future. The 2001/02 season shows similarities between now and then. Four teams in the round of 32, three made the last sixteen (with Juventus possibly meeting Fiorentina in the last 16 the chance of seeing four Italian sides in the quarter-Finals in impossible), two made the semi’s. Those two semi-finalists – Inter & AC Milan have resemblances with the modern-day Juventus & Napoli.
In the present, both Napoli and Juventus have a chance to compete for a trophy, progress deep in a UEFA competition (which offers a one-off game to win the UEFA Super Cup), gain confidence as a squad by winning two-legged ties and boost their UEFA co-efficients which may help for further progression through more favourable groups stage draws in future UEFA Champions League.
Back to 2001/02, Both Milanese clubs made the semi-finals of the 2001/02 UEFA Cup, using it as a launch pad to make the semi-finals of the Champions League a year later, with Milan lifting the famous trophy after beating Juventus on penalties. Both clubs used the runs in that season’s UEFA Cup as a launching –pad to begin what would become an annual constant assault on the Champions League in the following years.
It was during 2001/02 that Inter -much like Napoli- sold a big-name striker in Ronaldo during that period and used the money to build a stronger squad in the same way Napoli have done now. Ironically both bought an Argentinean hitman to replace their departing star assets. Inter back then, had a manager in Hector Cuper who had experience in guiding clubs to three UEFA Club finals as the current Napoli manager Rafa Benitez has now. Whilst Cuper lost all three of his finals, Benitez has won a Champions League and two Europa Leagues (one under the previous guise of the UEFA Cup) amongst other accolades.
Like Inter with Massimo Moratti, Napoli have Aurelio De Laurentiis. Moratti wanted to emulate his father Angelo’s successes at Inter both domestically and in Europe, whilst De Laurentiis is the man who resurrected Napoli from financial despair, lower league obscurity into a club that have won the domestic cup and qualify for Europe regularly for the first time since the Maradona days.
Juventus in 2013 resemble the AC Milan side of 2001/02. That season was Carlo Ancelotti’s first at Milan, replacing Fatih Terim after a string of poor results. That season would be Ancelotti’s first semi-final with Milan in a spell of four European semis in five years with the Milanese giants. Ancelotti was, much-like Antonio Conte now, was a former club legend attempting to steer his club to the glory days the club when both were playing their trade for their respective sides.
Milan in years prior had endured two painful back-to-back tenth place finishes as Juventus had suffered to back-to-back seventh-place finishes before winning back-to-back league titles.
Andrea Pirlo brings another dimension to the comparisons. Cast-aside by Inter, he became the man to pull the strings at AC Milan in their European and domestic successes under Ancelotti –as he is for Conte now. Ironic that he joined Juventus after Milan thought he was past his peak in 2011. Pirlo has proven them wrong domestically, in Europe and at International-level with Euro 2012 being a vicious reminder to the rest of the world that Pirlo is far from done.
A favourable omen of the 2001/02 season for Juventus was that in that season, Feyenoord won the UEFA Cup on home soil – an opportunity Juventus have with the final being
played at the Juventus stadium.
Historically, a Juventus UEFA Cup win has been a stepping-stone to bigger successes domestically and in the Champions League. Both of their previous UEFA Cup wins were catalysts for golden-eras, an ominous sign for the rest of Europe as it was Jose Mourinho who claimed that this Juventus side remind him of his Porto side. They won the UEFA Cup in 2003 – and we know what happened next.
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