Twenty years. Yes, it has been that long since an Italian club has won the Europa League or the UEFA Cup as it was known in 1998-99 when the legendary Parma team lifted the trophy. Sadly, an Italian side has even failed to qualify for the final of the competition since that remarkable 3-0 victory that the Ducali earned against Olympique Marseille at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
This indeed is a sad fact, as just an year prior Parma’s triumph Inter won the trophy in an all-Italian final, which just demonstrated Serie A’s dominance in the competition at the time. From 1989 to 1999 there were seven Italian winners, four all-Italian finals and just one season, 1995-96, which didn’t feature an Italian team in the final.
Times have changed though and recent years Serie A clubs have rarely been listed amongst the favourites for the trophy, and have regularly underperformed.
That was the case when Benfica eliminated Antonio Conte’s Juventus in 2014, when Napoli lost to Dnipro a year later and the scenario repeated itself last season as well. Maurizio Sarri’s side were eliminated by Leipzig in the Round of 32, while Lazio did the impossible to send RB Salzburg through after winning the first leg 4-2 at home.
Something similar happened with Atalanta this year as well, as Gian Piero Gasperini’s men were eliminated by FC Copenhagen in the group stage play-off, meaning that only Milan and Lazio will represent Serie A in the competition this term.
The presence of the more wealthy and rejuvenated English powerhouses Chelsea and Arsenal, as well as the five-time champions Sevilla, mean the Italian clubs will be dark horses rather than clear favourites this term. Just like every year, it is also almost certain that at least one top team will drop to the Europa League after the Champions League group stages, which makes the task for Milan and Lazio even tougher. This is exactly what happened last year, as Atletico Madrid showed they are at a completely different level, compared to the rest of the Europa League teams.
However with Gonzalo Higuain’s summer arrival Milan made a significant leap in quality, so the Rossoneri fans can be optimistic that their team can hold their own against any team in the competition. That wasn’t the case last year, when Gennaro Gattuso’s men looked shaky in almost every game they played.
Although there were some terrible decisions by the referee in the second leg against Arsenal, Milan were comfortably dispatched by 5-1. The Gunners have improved massively after Arsene Wenger’s departure, as they are currently on a nine game winning streak.
However, similarly to the il Diavolo, the English side has major issues in defence, so a potential clash between the two teams can be expected to be much closer than it was last term. The Rossoneri have kept just one clean sheet since the start of the season and this came in their 1-0 win against Dudelange.
Lazio’s defensive record matches Arsenal’s, but despite having Ciro Immobile in attack, the Biancocelesti clearly do not possess the attacking power of the Gunners. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto have both looked like shadows of themselves during the majority of Lazio’s games so far, which further highlights the limitations of Simone Inzaghi’s 3-5-2 formation. The Aquile’s lack of consistency and predictable playing style are the two major reasons for their European underperformance in the last two seasons, as this was also evident in their latest defeat on the continent, when they were trashed with 4-1 by Eintracht Frankfurt.
Lazio are very strong at home and if Inzaghi manages to add some variety in his team’s game, the Rome outfit can have their say even against the big guns in the tournament. However, at this point it seems that Lazio are a step behind Milan, Arsenal and Chelsea, the latter of whom have been transformed under Maurizio Sarri.
However, despite having a bigger squad at his disposal, the ex-Napoli coach was never known for his ability to use the full depth of his team and getting results on multiple fronts.
Overall, it can be concluded that both Milan and Lazio have the quality to enjoy a deep run in the competition, but in order for them to do anything really significant, both sides need to improve. It might be ironic, but unfortunately the defence of Italian teams has been their biggest problem in Europe in the past few seasons, so Gattuso and Inzaghi need to tighten up if they want to challenge.
Every calcio lover hopes Juventus, Napoli, Roma and Inter will continue their Champions League campaign past the group stage, which would mean that Milan and Lazio would remain the only Italian representatives in the Europa League. Unfortunately, the truth is that the chances of both the Rossoneri and the Biancocelesti ending the Italian drought in the competition look very slim right now.