There is something deeply wrong with the European performance of Italian teams at the early stage of the season in recent years.
Last year Atalanta were eliminated in the Europa League play-offs by an undoubtedly inferior FC Copenhagen side after missing a gazillion chances over two legs. In the not so distant past we’ve also seen Napoli, Roma, Lazio, Sampdoria and even the likes of Udinese and Chievo losing in the play-off round of the Champions League qualifiers against beatable opponents.
Considering this horrific trend for Serie A teams at this stage of the season, it really was no surprise to see Torino’s elimination against Wolverhampton Wanderers last night, as despite giving the English side a run for their money, the Granata lacked sharpness and match preparation.
The 3-2 defeat in the first leg meant that Walter Mazzarri’s men had a mountain to climb and during some periods of last night’s 2-1 loss, it seemed that the Granata were almost capable of doing it.
Just like in the first leg, Toro took the game to their opponents and put pressure on them from the start. However, it is obvious that Wolverhampton are not scared of defending and they do it very well, which showcased the flaws of this Torino side.
Another similarity with the first leg was the troubles that Adama Traore was creating for Torino on the left, as after the Barcelona youth-product ripped Cristian Ansaldi apart last week, he did the same to Ola Aina at the Molineux Stadium as well.
However, Traore’s role in Wolverhampton’s opening goal last night was identical to the assist he provided to Diogo Jota a week ago, with the only difference being that instead of Ansaldi and Soualiho Meite, the Spanish winger bamboozled Aina and Sasa Lukic.
Traore was also keen for the transition of the English team, as his ability to bring the ball forward with a mazy dribble or a sharp pass allows Wolves to turn their deep defending into deadly counter-attacking.
In fact, the lack of such player in the Torino team was arguably the biggest difference between the two sides personnel-wise, as despite the defeat, we won’t be too far off saying that Toro and Wolves are fairly equal in terms of quality.
Probably the outcome of both legs would’ve been different if Iago Falque wasn’t injured, as the Spaniard is arguably the only forward in Mazzarri’s squad that combines the necessary pace and technical ability to unbalance the rock-solid Wolves defence.
Once again, the Belotti-Zaza duo left plenty to be desired, as despite fighting hard, they are just far too similar and predictable for the equally powerful and athletic Wolverhampton defence.
Another weak point in Torino’s game was the presence of Gleison Bremer in the heart of their defensive trio. The Brazilian’s positioning and decision-making in both legs were questionable at best. This came right after Belotti’s equalizer and completely killed off Toro’s momentum and consequently chances of progression.
Lyanco would’ve probably done a much better job than his fellow countryman, but just like Falque, the 22-year-old centre back is recovering from injury. The row with Nicolas Nkolou didn’t help Torino’s cause either and the absence of both defenders left Mazzarri short of options in another key area.
Putting the gaps in their squad aside, the Torino players have plenty to regret, as qualification was possible even with what they had at their disposal. However, not at this stage of the season.
Unlike Wolves, Toro were way too hesitant when defending, which meant that just like in the first leg Nuno Esprito Santo’s men instantly became dangerous, even if their attempts to trouble Salvatore Sirigu came much more rarely than the Torino attacks.
Again, the sharpness and decisiveness of the Wolverhampton players were just on a different level, which was arguably the only difference between the two sides. However, it really was a significant one, as it resulted in Wolves being way more concentrated and aggressive when defending, as well as converting almost all their chances over the two legs.
Looking back at the shortcomings of the other Italian sides in the play-off stages of both the Champions League and Europa League show similar weaknesses in the mentality and preparation of the teams. But where is this gap coming from?
Of course the work of the Coach, the way pre-season is organised, as well as the potential change of personnel in the sides all play their part, but on many occasions none of those seem to be the main reason.
This means that the issue lays elsewhere and considering all the recent unconvincing European displays of Italian sides in this early stage of the season, it’s inevitable to question the Serie A schedule.
This is a topic that has been discussed over and over again, and putting aside several twists and tweaks that have mainly influenced the TV requirements, the problem hasn’t really been addressed properly.
The truth is that if the Italian Football Federation wants to help Serie A teams improve in Europe, they need to move the start of the league earlier in order for Italian teams to be in tune with the preparation of the rest of the top leagues on the Continent.
Way too often we’ve seen Italians struggle and fail at the hands of equally capable or even inferior teams just because the Serie A sides lack fitness, mental preparation or playing rhythm.
Saying this doesn’t mean that Torino or any other Italian team should look for excuses. Wolverhampton are a very good team that could’ve well beaten the Granata, even if Mazzarri had all his best players available and even if they were better prepared.
However, maybe FIGC should consider more seriously the change of the Serie A schedule, which in its current format is handicapping the Italian teams badly.