DroughtConditions – CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

A lot can happen in 10 years. Pop culture trends can come and go. Sporting heroes can sparkle, awe us with their majesty and just as easily fade from view as quick as they came into focus. Governments can rise to power and be dethroned. You could’ve invested tens of hours of viewing time in the goings-on in Game of Thrones, only to find how excruciatingly awful it became as it crashed and burned at the end.

But what hasn’t happened in 10 years is a Serie A side lifting Europe’s premier football trophy, the Champions League. It’s been almost a decade since Inter captain Javier Zanetti walked up the vertigo-inducing steps of Santiago Bernabeu to collect the Champions League trophy. Inter’s 2-0 victory over Bayern Munich in May 2010 represented the last time a team from Italy could be called champions of Europe.

Serie A’s latest barren spell is the nation’s longest since the dark ages of the 1970s, when there was a 15-year gap from 1970 to 1985 without an Italian side hoisting the big eared cup into the night sky. Despite the best efforts of Juventus to add to their relatively modest Champions League haul, the ‘10s represent a dreadful, and at times deeply embarrassing, decade in the competition for Italian sides.

Juve, Inter, Napoli and newcomers Atalanta will try to break the drought in 2019-20. Juventus of course have a love-hate relationship with the Champions League. Their record of six finals and five defeats eats away at the soul of club President Andrea Agnelli. No side has lost more European Cup finals than the Old Lady. For a club that’s considered European royal aristocracy, their legacy of only two European Cup/Champions League wins leaves a somewhat gaping hole on the CV.

In that barren decade of the 2010s, the Bianconeri did more than any team in Serie A to put an Italian winner on the roll call. Finalists in 2015 and 2017, they hoped that the game-changing signing of Cristiano Ronaldo, who had tormented them in the Cardiff final and in the following season’s quarter-final, would this time take them over the line. But football isn’t as simple as buying the players that inflict the most harm on your chances of success.

In his first season in Italy, Juventus arguably performed worse with Ronaldo in the team than in the previous years. While Ronaldo maintained his ludicrously high personal standards, complacency set in with his teammates. There was a feeling amongst the other Juventus players that Ronaldo will always do enough to sort out any games or situations that were remarkably tight, almost leaving everything to him.

Case in point was the round of 16 tie against Atletico Madrid. Thoroughly dominated throughout the first leg, it was only due to Ronaldo’s sheer force of will that Juve pulled the tie around in the return, winning 3-0, with Ronaldo scoring a hat-trick. In the two quarter-final legs against Ajax, again it was Ronaldo who scored the goals that would seemingly take them into another semi-final, only for the defence to capitulate.

The consensus was reached with Coach Massimiliano Allegri that the end of the road was in sight. Allegri, a pragmatist who doesn’t imbed any one particular style of football into his teams, was viewed as the problem in the wake of the timid first leg defeat to Atletico.

Allegri was replaced by Maurizio Sarri, in the hope that his much-celebrated Sarri-ball will make the club an attractive proposition. Aaron Ramsey, Adrien Rabiot, Cristian Romero, Merih Demiral, the returning Gianluigi Buffon and Matthijs De Ligt have all swollen the Bianconeri ranks over the course of the summer.

Will it be enough to secure that long-awaited third Champions League crown? There is an argument to be made that despite the signings of Ramsey and Rabiot, the club still hasn’t designated a successor to Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba. There is a lack of mettle in the midfield area, which was so brutally exposed against Ajax’s swashbuckling side last season.

Napoli will want to make a better fist of forging a deep run in the competition this season. Unluckily drawn in a daunting group last season with Paris Saint-Germain and eventual tournament winners Liverpool, they should in truth have qualified, with the goalless draw away to Red Star Belgrade ultimately costing them the Azzurri in the knockout rounds.

It’s that prolificacy that Carlo Ancelotti wants to readdress this season. Rumours swirled for months that Ancelotti wanted an out-and-out striker to spearhead Napoli. While last season was somewhat of a transition between the Sarri era and the new Ancelotti reign, this season will be the first season in which the side will be completely in Ancelotti’s image. Moves for Mauro Icardi and James Rodriguez have been long-touted but negotiations proved difficult.

The defence has been reinforced with the signing of Kostas Manolas from Roma, replacing the outgoing Raul Albiol. A favourable draw could see Napoli reach the quarter-final stage for the first time in the club’s history.

Inter are an altogether more intriguing prospect. Now under the guise of former Juventus legend Antonio Conte, there is real hope of Conte achieving big things with the Nerazzurri. A born winner, and a Coach who wants to win now, not five years down the line, Conte doesn’t suffer fools and has already backed the club’s plans to get rid of top goalscorer Icardi and Radja Nainggolan, the type of player he would’ve once craved when in charge of Juventus.

Conte is now in charge of a bloated squad that desperately needs trimmed. Conte’s request for Romelu Lukaku was eventually met, and with many fringe players unable to be sold on, seeds of discontent are already sprouting between the fiery trainer and the Inter hierarchy.

Yet despite this, Conte has a very capable squad at his disposal, with the signings of Stefano Sensi and Nicolo Barella especially needed in the middle of the park. Conte’s likely to follow the trend of his time at Juventus and Italy be utilising a 3-5-2 system, making the most of Inter’s three world class centre-backs in Diego Godin, Stefan de Vrij and Milan Skriniar.

First timers Atalanta are getting their first taste of elite European football. Due to the relative lack of European access in their recent history, La Dea find themselves in pot 4 and can expect to find themselves in a tough group. Gian Piero Gasperini has implored the club to keep all their major players and to add several higher quality players to ensure a competitive squad. Luis Muriel has been the standout addition, signed from Sevilla for €15m. Gianluca Mancini has been the sole key departure, signing for Roma.

What are the expectations from Serie A’s quartet this season? Can they realistically succeed? Outside of the perennial League winners Juventus, it seems highly unlikely. But that doesn’t mean to say that the remaining trio can’t make the mark on the competition. Inter and Napoli, given lenient group stage draws, should be in with a chance of reaching the last eight of the competition. Atalanta will find it tougher, but can at the very least aim for a Europa League spot by finishing third in the group phase. Gasperini’s side will just want to enjoy the experience of rubbing shoulders with Europe’s elite. But either way, it’s high time Old Big Ears returned to the peninsula.

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