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European football can still be kind to calcio this season despite Champions League nightmare

Tuesday 18th February 2014
When it comes to European football, the Italians have traditionally been a force to be reckoned with. From Arrigo Sacchi's AC Milan, the last side to successfully defend the old European Cup when the 80's turned into the 90's, to a Juventus side that won one and lost two of three successive Champions League finals between 1996-98, Italian football has often been the bedrock of successful campaigns on the big stage.

There are plenty of other examples that could be given, too. This year, however, and indeed in recent years for the most part, calcio's effect on the Champions League hasn't been so big, and this year is no different. In a year that started with so much promise, whether it be Kaka's return to Milan, Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente heading to Turin to strengthen an already sumptuous Juventus attack, or Napoli's acquisition of a Champions League and UEFA Cup winning coach in Rafa Benitez, only one of the three Serie A hopefuls remains in Europe's premier club competition as the knockout stages begin this week.

Ironically, that team is Milan, who have been so far off the pace domestically this term it's hard to believe. Clarence Seedorf's men will head into their round of 16 tie as underdogs, as they face a very impressive Atletico Madrid side, who are hellbent on making it a three way title race in Spain this season, sitting level on points with usual suspects Real Madrid and Barcelona. The Rossoneri aren't heading into the game at the San Siro in the best of shape either, despite a 1-0 win at home to Bologna on Friday evening. A typically flat and lifeless performance that sadly has become a regular occurrence of Milan this season was only forgotten about thanks to a late wonder goal by Mario Balotelli which papers over cracks that may well be exploited by Diego Costa and co. later this week.

For the big boys in Serie A, Juventus and Napoli, their European campaigns have been one to forget so far. Napoli were perhaps unlucky to finish third in the "group of death" behind Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal despite amassing 12 points. While Juventus only had themselves to blame when not qualifying from their group alongside Real Madrid. Although their Matchday six defeat against eventual runners up Galataseray in Istanbul became rather farcical, thanks to the game being abandoned after half an hour and being completed the next day despite the pitch hardly being in a good enough state, La Signora's failure was down to not beating group whipping boys FC Copenhagen away and failing to dispatch the Turks in Turin, rather than going down to a Wesley Sneijder goal at a wet, wintry Turk Telekom Arena.

All is not lost though, as both sides have fallen into the Europa League. Of course, neither would like to be in this position, but it may well be the savior of the European season in Italy. Juventus will be hoping that any ghosts of their last trip to Turkey have been forgotten as they face Trabzonspor in the round of 32, while English football fans will be intrigued as Napoli head to South Wales to face a Michael Laudrup-less Swansea City. Fiorentina and Lazio are also aiming for a spot in the last 16 as they face Elsberg and Ludogorets Razgrad respectively, with the possibility of an all Italian meeting in the next round. Vincenzo Montella's La Viola will face the champions if they both, as expected, make it through their ties.

The Champions League has become something of a holy grail in recent times, especially for clubs the size of Napoli and Juventus. While Milan may well defy the odds and make it past Atletico Madrid, Italy's best hope of a European winner surely comes in the Europa League. With the final being held at the Juventus Stadium, the Bianconeri may well have all the motivation they need to go all the way, while Rafa Benitez would dearly love to lift the trophy that he did so a decade ago with Valencia.
Harry De Cosemo
19 years old, Newcastle season ticket holder. European football enthusiast and aspiring football writer. Currently doing a Journalism degree at Teesside University. You can follow me on Twitter: @harrydecosemo

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