Only Milan and Lazio will represent Italy in the next round. The prestige of Italian football and an additional direct access to the next Champions League edition are at stake.
Last Thursday night was bittersweet for the Italian football clubs playing in the UEFA Europa League round of 32. Two of the four qualified teams, Atalanta and Napoli, were eliminated after having attempted great comebacks. On the other hand, SS Lazio and AC Milan went through to the next round, both winning their home matches.
The team from Bergamo has been the Italian revelation of the tournament. Indeed, the Nerazzurri won a ‘group of death’ including Olimpique Lyon and Everton FC in the previous stage and played an historical and hard-fought first leg of this round in Germany, against Borussia Dortmund. An away 3-2 defeat had given hopes to Atalanta for the return match. Not so suprisingly, after ten minutes the dream seemed to become true. The Brazilian centre-back Rafael Tolói scored the opener and Atalanta took the lead. In the second half, the Italian side had at least three opportunities to double the score, but the responsive goalkeeper Roman Bürki stopped their initiatives.
Unfortunately, just seven minutes before the whistle blew, Borussia Dortmund equalized with Marcel Schmelzer, who took advantage of a blopper by the Atalanta goalkeeper Etrit Berisha. This goal marked the end of a dream, but coach Giampiero Gasperini remakred that he is very proud of his players: ‘This cup made us conscious that we represented the Italian football in the best possible way, facing on an equal footing the top clubs of English, French and German football.”
After the death-wish home match, where Napoli lost 1-3 against RB Lipsia despite the initial advantage, the team coached by Maurizio Sarri redeemed partly themselves by winning 0-2 away and scaring the opponents until the final minutes. Piotr Zielinski and Lorenzo Insigne scored one goal each in both halves, but this effort was not enough to continue the European journey, adding further bitterness after the previous elimination from the Champions League. However, coach Maurizio Sarri avoids to overdramatize about a team that is currently leading the Italian league (Serie A): ‘Napoli showed to have a soul, so it is a pity for the last minutes of the first leg’.
The Roman club needed to overturn the 1-0 defeat obtained in Romania against Steaua Bucarest. Man of the match was Ciro Immobile, currently one of the best Italian forwards, who scored a hat-trick, including the opener after just seven minutes that allowed his team to manage comfortably the rest of the game. Bastos and Felipe Anderson scored the other two goals. This landslide victory gave new enthusiasm to a team that was facing a long losing streak, but that at the same time was playing good football. After the final 5-1, Lazio coach Simone Inzaghi congratulated his striker Immobile in front of the press: ‘Ciro broke my record of goals with this shirt, I am happy for him. We must go through the competition as much as possible, as we arrived up here with many sacrifices’.
After a 0-3 away victory in Bulgaria, this match was a mere formality for AC Milan and especially useful for coach Gennaro Gattuso, who lined up the reserves. Therefore, the second leg has been less hard-fought and vibrating compared to the first match. The only goal of the evening was scored in the first half by Fabio Borini, who had also scored in Bulgaria. Ludogorets could not react, probably due to the demoralizing aggregate score. Gattuso, who revitalized AC Milan after a difficult start of season, said to the press: ‘I’m very happy for the clean sheet, it means that the players are working harder. We still need to improve, but we are on the right track’.
Milan will have to face English giants Arsenal FC in the next round, while Lazio will take on Dynamo Kyiv. This was the outcome of the round of 16 draw, that will be played on March 8 (first leg) and March 15 (second leg). The prestige of Italian football, though already split in half, and an addittional direct access to the next Champions League edition are at stake. Moreover, Italy is missing this trophy since 1999, when Parma won the then-called UEFA Cup against Olympique Marseille. It was too long ago.