Some victories become symptoms when placed on the tracing paper of history. And the passage of Napoli to the quarterfinals of the Champions League for the first time, after eliminating Eintracht Frankfurt with authority at the Diego Armando Maradona on Wednesday night (5-0 in the round total), is a reflection of the change of pace that Italian football has experienced this year. For the first time in 17 years, three Calcio teams are among the eight best in Europe: Inter, Milan and Napoli. An important transformation whose paternity could also be attributed to a handful of coincidences -the tie between Inter and Porto was not exactly a resounding victory for the Milanese-, but which ends a decadent stage of transalpine football.
Italy has gone through a dark period when teams left its borders. Including Nazionale itself, eliminated in the qualifying round of the last two World Cups. However, they are now the only country in Europe to place three clubs in the next round of the Champions League. England maintains two (City and Chelsea) and the rest only one. In addition, Calcio aspires today to have four other teams (Rome, Juventus, Fiorentina and Lazio) in the quarterfinals of European competitions. The scenario is irrefutable for general analysis. However, the data in the national competition are not so resounding.
Napoli, the only one of those three clubs that belongs to an Italian businessman (the producer Aurelio de Laurentiis), is 18 points better than the second, Inter Milan. And the next four classifieds dispute the Champions League places at the blow of unusual defeats or sad draws against the bottom of the table: like the one between Milan and Salernitana last weekend. There may be a lack of tension. As it happened in recent years, when a Juventus still outside the financial shadow of doubt converted nine times in a row the scudetto on a triumphal ride. A historic series of victories that, however, only had a bitter reflection in Europe, where the Vecchia Signora They have not lifted the Champions League since 1996.
The last Champions League lifted by a transalpine club was that of Mourinho’s Inter Milan in 2010. An isolated victory that tasted of glory that had ended a decade earlier. Now things could change, says the journalist and writer Paolo Condó. “It is a combination of factors. We have had a lucky draw: the three Italian teams faced the weakest possible opponents. But Napoli this year is a strong team that plays very European football, as Guardiola himself said. And he has worked a miracle that all clubs dream of: discovering an outstanding player that nobody knew about. That’s almost impossible today.” This is the Georgian Jvicha Kavaratskhelia, one of the signings that the sports management of Naples has pulled out of its sleeve in recent years at relatively low costs (they paid 11 million for him).
The round of 16 draw, there is no doubt, reserved some fortune for the Italians. “Yes, but in football there are no coincidences,” Dino Zoff, legendary Juventus goalkeeper, rebuts on the phone. “Our teams get the best out of their squads when they go outside of Italy. While in the championship, very interrupted by the referees, the protests and a certain slowness, that cannot be seen. Outside you have to work as international football requires, and that brings out the best in us. These are qualities that many times we do not exploit in our championship. The key is that the four clubs that are fighting today for the Champions League qualification have good players for the first time in a long time”.
All these teams have built their squads from the bottom up – Milan and Inter have also invested small amounts looking for unknown talent – but they have polished a defensive tradition that has re-emerged, adds Condó. The Italian teams in the quarterfinals have not conceded any goals in this tie. “And that is very important. In these last 20 years we have lived as a shame to be great defenders. So we were ugly, mean and dirty. But the three teams have not suffered too much, except in the minutes of recovery. Tottenham practically didn’t shoot on goal”. Like old times.
Calcio was everything between 1991 and 2001. An entire decade in which UEFA standards awarded Serie A the title of the best league in Europe. A competition that gave birth to most of the Ballon d’Ors of that period (Papin, Van Basten, Weah…) and generated huge television and commercial income. It was the time of the clubs / company. Berlusconi with his Milan, Cragnotti with Lazio, Inter with Moratti. Great businessmen who put their personal fortunes at the service of some teams that, years later, ended up bankrupt. Today that long twilight can be explained through extra-sporting elements such as the business model or the mismanagement of the clubs, today in the hands of investment funds from American or Chinese groups. A nebula that begins to overcome itself.
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