I’ve written about Milan ad nauseam this year and have highlighted their sporadic play throughout, but in Europe they have been performing on par to expectations - unlike Atalanta, who punched above their weight by topping their ‘Group of Death’ with Lyon and Everton.
The road to the Europa League final got progressively harder when Atalanta were drawn with Borussia Dortmund in the Round of 32. But by now, we hope you had learned not to sleep when the Goddess is ready to run.
Gian Piero Gasperini’s side has been one of Italian football’s feel-good stories over the past two seasons, finishing fourth in 2016-17 and continuing to hang tough on all three fronts in 2018, despite being raided of their top talent last summer.
Statistically, 2016-17 was the Bergamo outfit’s most successful season in club history, so topping that was always going to be a challenge. However, La Dea are currently four points off Sampdoria for the final European slot in Italy, alive in the Coppa Italia semi-finals against Juventus and still believe they can advance past Dortmund despite a 3-2 deficit.
Over 5,000 faithful supporters traveled to a difficult venue in the Westfalenstadion and were rewarded with an encouraging display by their beloved club. I can assure you ‘General Papu’ will have his men ready to keep the dream alive in the second leg, and if you believe in miracles, Atalanta hoisting a Europa League trophy after a string of unlucky draws would be a remarkable sight.
Meanwhile, Milan - the lone victors from the first leg of the knockout stage round – continued to ride the hot form of Patrick Cutrone last night. Once again, the 20-year-old left his major mark out on the pitch for the Milanese giants yet again, scoring a goal and earning a penalty that was later dispatched by Ricardo Rodriguez.
The Como-born hitman has grown to become Gennaro Gattuso’s first-choice option, and that will likely be the case until the end of the season – at least in important fixtures. But, more importantly than the Italian’s exploits, Milan extended their unbeaten run to nine games in all competition and are in pole position to progress to the Round of 16 after a 3-0 win.
Based on the line-up chosen, Gattuso is really prioritising this tournament, as it could be the back door the Rossoneri need to get into the Champions League for next year. Perhaps with some ‘grinta’ from the gaffer, steady form and a bit of luck on the draw, Milan could have their road paved to the final. However, others may not be throwing all of their eggs into one basket, and instead, keeping their eyes on the prize in the form of meeting domestic objectives.
When it comes to Serie A, Lazio and Napoli have plenty to play for, which is why exiting at this stage of the tournament could be just what the doctor ordered to ensure both get what they want.
The Aquile have been nothing short of magnificent this entire campaign, with attacking duo Ciro Immobile and Luis Alberto leading one of Italy’s most potent offensive sides. Yet, their current three-match losing skid in Serie A has them now out of the top four, leading many to believe that maybe Simone Inzaghi could benefit from bowing out in the end if it meant reaching the Coppa Italia final and top four finish was the trade-off.
They will return home to Rome for the second leg trailing Steaua Bucharest 1-0 on aggregate, so certainly the Capital club likes the odds of advancing. The same cannot be said for the first-place Partenopei, who faltered at the San Paolo against RB Leipzig 3-1.
The goal was laid out from the moment each player arrived for pre-season camp in the summer; to dethrone Juventus and win the Scudetto. When Napoli were in the group stage of the Champions League before eventually failing to escape, many observed it as a blessing in Maurizio Sarri’s quest for a title. His men wouldn’t have to deal with the taxing travel schedule, long fixture list, and risk of further setbacks due to injuries that could otherwise threaten their hopes of beating the Old Lady to the podium.
With Juventus breathing down their necks and the 3-1 hole Napoli now find themselves in, Sarri likely won’t be taking many risks for the away leg. It’s inexplicable how he could act surprised that Napoli and their fans weren’t taking this seriously after weeks of moaning that the Europa League was a waste of time, a drain on resources and an unwanted clog in their fixture list.
For each Italian representative remaining in the tournament, anything can happen. Last night proved who is really seizing the opportunity in front of them, and who is not. However, the optimism is there in Italy being well represented in the next round, ready to make a deep run.