With the Champions League group stages now complete, a look down the list of the 16 clubs that qualified for the first knock out stage reveals a group of usual suspects. As had been expected, Europe’s elite populate the narrowed field as usual. But surprisingly, few of the tournament’s most familiar faces didn’t manage to clear the hurdle.
Former superpowers Ajax and Celtic didn’t make it through again, though that’s become standard fare in recent years. Neither of Portugal’s top clubs, Benfica and Porto, were able to qualify either. Evern perennial Cinderella FC Basel weren’t able to repeat their recent successes.
But perhaps the two biggest names not to make the cut this season are Italy’s current popular picks of the litter, Juventus FC and SSC Napoli.
Currently sitting first and third in the Serie A, respectively, seeing last year’s Italian champions and runners-up crash out at such an early stage was far from expected. In particular, Juve’s failure to progress was shocking given they were often mooted as a potential challenger for the trophy this campaign. Napoli, while not a favorite, has been a very fashionable side in on the peninsula in recent years, and a lot was expected after last year’s title chase.
As recent as this summer, pundits and fans alike were busy tripping over one another to anoint the 2013/2014 season as the season where Italy’s Serie A finally got its groove back. Juventus and Napoli’s drawn out battle for the title last year — coupled with a season-long drama around who would land the coveted third Champions League spot to which Milan eventually claimed — had bolstered hopes that this season would see the league finally rise from the ashes of the 2006 Calciopoli scandal. A series of big name transfers would be coming in to Serie A, reversing the trend in recent years. If players like Fernando Llorente, Carlos Tévez, Gonzalo Higuaín, Pepe Reina and Mario Balotelli were choosing to come to Italy over other opportunities, the future indeed appeared bright.
But six months on, the Italian first division will only have a single team in the last sixteen of Europe’s top competition for the first time since 1999. Italy national team boss Caesar Prandelli went so far as to say that Italian soccer is at a “historic low”. So much for getting that groove back.
Where did things go wrong? For both the Partenopei and the bianconeri, a number of factors contributed to their failings.
In the case of Napoli’s failure, being placed in the Champions League’s “Group of Death” certainly didn’t help things. And to their credit, it wasn’t as if they crashed out bottom of their group. They finished with 12 points, level with group winners Arsenal and runners-up Dortmund, and only falling short on goal differential. So on the surface at least, it might seem foolish to brandish their Champions League campaign a failure.
Under that facade though, there are cracks appearing. The club has done well to deal with the departure of talisman Edison Cavani to PSG, with former Madrid forwards Higuaín and Callejón doing well to offset Cavani’s scoring. But they’ve lacked the spark they had in their last Champions League campaign two years ago, and even the verve they had last season in the league.
That lack of a noticeable edge to the team could potentially be blamed on the appointment of Rafa Benítez as manager at the start of the season. The former Liverpool manager’s track record in the competition speaks for itself, but he has also developed a reputation of passiveness. For example, his hesitation/contention to not go for another goal against Arsenal with ten minutes to play and Dortmund a man up in the other fixture is a little mind-boggling. Finding that extra goal against a tired Gunners side — also a man down, mind you — would have been enough to see them through. Maybe it’s unfair to say Benítez is up to his old tricks already, but we have seen lethargy creep into his Liverpool and Inter sides before.
Juventus, meanwhile, are facing an entirely different set of problems. While knee-jerk reactions to their Champions League exit might pin blame on Galatasaray’s hail-damaged pitch, a draw away at lowly Copenhagen and a pair of home draws against Gala and Real Madrid were likely enough to seal their fate.
Other proposed factors for their failure include team chemistry issues — there have been hiccups integrating Llorente into the squad, though Tévez has fared better — as well theories that Antonio Conte’s 3-5-2 doesn’t translate well to European play. However, the injury to midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo is probably the biggest kink in the Juve chain at the moment. The engine to the bianconeri‘s revival since his arrival from Milan two years ago, the side looked lost in his absence in Europe.
To be honest, when looking at both their situations, neither club looks in dire straights. Napoli’s tough draw and Juve’s injury issues seemed the chief culprits. Both sides are looking good domestically, and each will likely also drop into the Europa League as seeded sides. The later prospect will be particularly enticing to Juventus, as their new stadium will host the final in May. And let’s not forget that Milan still find themselves in UEFA’s pinnacle competition.
Perhaps Prandelli’s reaction was a little strong, at least as it pertains to Italy’s elite clubs.
As for the rest of Serie A, well… problems remain. Crumbling stadiums, ugly club finances and extremist hooligan fan behavior remain gigantic concerns for a league that’s lost lots of its luster in recent years.
Italian football on the whole may very well be at a “historic low” right now. But when it comes to the recent failures of some of Serie A’s biggest clubs, this failings will likely be little more than blips on the radar.