For each of the Italian sides involved in the Europa League, the competition has a different meaning. For Lazio, it seems less of a priority seeing as they still find themselves in the Coppa Italia semi-finals and in the midst of a battle to secure a top-four finish, yet Simone Inzaghi has stated that his side aims to go as far as they can in the tournament.
Inter seem to have a larger investment in the competition due to the recent uncertainty regarding their Serie A season, so a run to the final will do wonders for what has turned into a frustrating campaign. Napoli, on the other hand, appear to be the side with the most desire, or more appropriately, the most incentive to lift the Europa League trophy, seeing as it is their last realistic shot at some silverware this season.
Nevertheless, each club went into their respective matches looking to start the knockout stages on the right foot. Lazio kicked things off against Sevilla, a side that has won the competition a record five times. The Biancocelesti headed into the match winning their past three games in all competition, however, they were to be without some of their key players. Ciro Immobile and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic were the most notable omissions from the squad and they’d lose another three stars before the 90 minutes were up.
Savic’s absence in the middle of the park was evident whenever Lazio had to withstand Sevilla’s counter-attack. Often times they looked lost without his physical presence to break up Sevilla’s movements going forward. After going 1-0 down after just 20 minutes, Lazio did well to create chances for themselves, but again lacked that clinical edge in front of goal.
Strength in depth has always been a concern for Lazio, the only Italian team still stretched out on three fronts, so losing Luis Alberto, Wallace and Marco Parolo – forcing all three substitutions – only exacerbated the problem.
Having said all that, losing 1-0 to Europa League specialists Sevilla in these dire circumstances isn’t that bad. An early goal in Spain and everything could be back on the table. After all, Sevilla are currently in a bit of a slump and Immobile has a point to prove against his old club.
Inter were missing their centre-forward too against Rapid Vienna, but for a very different reason. The Mauro Icardi bombshell exploded on Wednesday, he was stripped of the captaincy and then refused to make the trip to Austria in a fit of pique.
It was therefore fitting that the decisive goal should be scored by his replacement and protegee Lautaro Martinez. The fact it was a penalty showed Inter’s struggle to score from open play against a vastly inferior Rapid Vienna. Of Inter’s 13 shots on goal, seven were off target. Inter’s central midfielders failed to make any sort of a contribution in breaking Rapid down. Towards the end of the match, we could see the frustration that plagued the Inter players, with Ivan Perisic visibly angry at Antonio Candreva for a lack of communication on a free kick at the end of the game.
Inter still stand as the favorites in this tie, but the distracting environment in Milan at the moment doesn’t bode well for them. They face off against a hard to beat Sampdoria side before the second leg, and if they aren’t able to sort things out soon, it could end up sending their season further off the rails.
Of the three sides, Napoli had the best night. Touted as one of the favorites to win the Europa League, the Partenopei looked a side with the tools to make it to Azerbaijan come May. Although Zurich isn’t the strongest opposition, Carlo Ancelotti’s men put three past a side that has only lost once at home all season in the Swiss Super League.
New captain Lorenzo Insigne opened up the scoring after Zurich goalkeeper Yanick Brecher stuttered on a back-pass. Throughout the first leg, we saw a Napoli side that seemed to have been rejuvenated following their 0-0 draw with Fiorentina last weekend. The Azzurri's movement was fluid and it seemed as if there was no shortage of ideas for the Napoli players when it came to how they were going to pick apart their opponents.
In the midfield, Fabian Ruiz and Allan pulled the strings for Ancelotti’s side, often switching the play to utilise their teammates on the wings. In addition to switching the play, overlapping runs from the full-backs were another common sight. Napoli are no stranger to using the flanks while attacking, and Kevin Malcuit executed the style to perfection against the Swiss side.
Things got sloppy for the Partenopei at the end of the match, as they again failed to keep a clean sheet and almost let Zurich back into the tie. Considering they went out of the Champions League by conceding avoidable late goals, you’d think they would’ve learned their lesson by now.