If anyone thought Lazio and Milan had learned the lessons of last season’s Europa League complacency, then they were wrong. The opening round of the group phase brought full points and empty feelings after again doing the bare minimum. This simply won’t do.
It was Lazio who got things started on home ground at the Stadio Olimpico versus Apollon Limassol, with Coach Simone Inzaghi fielding a mixed XI including the likes of Luis Alberto and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, while resting star striker Ciro Immobile in favour of Felipe Caicedo.
So far, so good, but once again the Aquile risked throwing it all away with poor finishing and even worse defending. Bastos confirmed why he has been snubbed in favour of Wallace lately, while Senad Lulic’s failure to score in front of an open goal from a couple of yards reserves him a spot in viral hell.
Apollon Limassol deserve credit for not giving in and already caused a few upsets last season against Atalanta, Everton and Olympique Lyonnais. We can only hope this near miss will knock Lazio out of their complacency, but if last season’s Europa League exit didn’t do it, then this certainly won’t.
Milan at least had more reason to feel complacent going to Luxembourg against a Dudelange side with several semi-professional players. Even then, it was only decided by a Gonzalo Higuain strike and there were a few scares at the back.
Gennaro Gattuso took the opportunity to experiment a bit, giving debuts to some new faces and reminding us all that others still existed. Focusing on the midfield three, it was Jose Mauri who stood out the most amongst both TiemoueBakayoko and Andrea Bertolacci in his 80 minutes of action. Although a bit surprised with how Dudelange started, the former Parma standout turned in a lively shift. Active, energetic and showing a bit of bite, Mauri did enough to support his claim for more minutes in league play. As for Bakayoko, he gradually gathered himself by growing more confident on the ball with each connected pass, and working well to support further up.
Bakayoko’s adaptation to Calcio will only be made simpler by playing and building confidence. By no means is the Chelsea flop a ‘regista’, nor does his skill-set point in that direction, but it is clear Gattuso is willing to give him minutes to prove himself. The French international’s first touch still leaves much to be desired, and his ball-playing ability remains suspect, but pitch time to adapt is his best friend at the moment.
Collectively, Milan had no issues advancing play into the final third and controlling the possession game, but struggled to break down their opponent consistently. Surely you can point to Hakan Calhanoglu and Suso resting, an entirely different midfield three, and keeper Joe Frising keeping the game within arms reach.
Gattuso most definitely hoped the attackers and midfield personnel would have been able to conjure up enough chances to blow the cover off this one. Nonetheless, he will take the win home and let it serve as a lesson to motivate his men to come out with more next time around.
On paper, the Rossoneri and Biancocelesti began their respective Europa League campaigns against two inferior opponents they were heavily favored to topple. But as we all have come to know of this tournament, no club should be taken lightly on any given matchday. Just ask Olympique Marseille, who lost at home to 10-man Eintracht Frankfurt in Lazio’s group, or Anderlecht falling at Spartak Trnava.