2-5-6. No, this is not a random collection of numbers, but rather representative of how many points each of Serie A’s three representatives have earned halfway through the group stages of this year’s Champions League. Interestingly, two of these teams are actually doing pretty well in the league, and are now within three points of catching Roma, whose unforeseen 10-game game winning streak came to a screeching halt at the hands of Torino this weekend. The other team, however, is simply floundering, with a measly 12 points from 11 games that sees them just a mere three points away from the relegation-based teams’ 9.
The first team on this list–Juventus–simply have a probable insurmountable task ahead of them. Having thrown away valuable points by drawing with Copenhagen and Galatasaray in their first two fixtures they were unable to even earn one point against Real Madrid a couple weeks ago at Los Blancos home ground–although it should be noted that they were able to grab a vital away goal–something that certainly should give them some sort of boost when coming face to face with the Spanish giants tomorrow.
The problem is, Galatasaray will certainly beat Copenhagen, which means that, even if the Bianconeri can defeat a dominant and rampaging Los Blancos, Madrid will still be leading the pack with nine, followed by Galatasaray with seven, and then Juventus on five. And that’s assuming if they manage to beat their opponents, who have outscored everyone else in Group B by 12 to two–with CR7 netting seven of those (meaning that he’s scored at least twice in every game and will certainly be looking to add more).
Antonio Conte’s troops’ future, unfortunately does not even appear to be in their own hands–they’ll have to hope that somehow Galatasaray drops points against Copenhagen (preferably all three), somehow manage to grab at least one (again, here, all three would be best) against Los Blancos before heading into their last two fixtures–which are simply must wins against Copenhagen and Galatasaray. And they’ll also have to count on their opponents–especially the Turkish side–putting a dent in the rampant Madrid’s campaign in the Champions League so far, but given how they thrashed them in a humiliating 6-1 defeat at their home ground in the first game, that really doesn’t look likely.
Coming into their game against Madrid tonight, the Bianconeri will certainly be ruing those wasted opportunities because it looks like they’ve dug themselves into a hole that they just might not be able to pull themselves out of. However, while redemption is still possible in the form of the Europa League–just look at Chelsea–certainly this is not how Conte, who had likened his side to a skyscraper in progress following their 4-0 aggregate defeat to Bayern Munich–would have envisioned things going for the Bianconeri’s second attempt in Europe after a long hiatus.
Napoli, with whom Juventus are tied with on points but behind on goal difference, are also in third place in their group which many had described as the trickiest group this year. As things stand, providing that they don’t lose to Marseille, who have turned out to be the side that everyone has grabbed all three points against, they’re at least guaranteed a spot in the Europa League for this season. Of course, given that they made it to the round of 16 in their debut run two seasons ago, the Partenopei obviously aren’t aspiring to try their luck in Europe’s second-tier competition.
So far, though, they’ve held their own, with their only loss coming to Arsenal where they were simply blitz-attacked within the first 15 minutes and failed to get any kind of foothold on the match thereafter. Should they win against Marseille on Wednesday, they’ll still have to hope that either Arsenal or Dortmund slip up in their clash so as to be able to break away from the three-way stranglehold and move into second place with nine points. Looming on the horizon for them will then be Dortmund followed by Arsenal, but in the case of die Schwarzgelben, they’ve beaten them previously and would have possibly kept a clean sheet were it not for Juan Zuniga gifting the visitors an important away goal three minutes of regulation time.
As for the current Premier League leaders, certainly Rafa Benitez would have taken note of how the Gunners exploited his side’s deficiencies and will be naturally attempting to modify things in the home-tie at the Stadio San Paolo. As things stand, there are three teams that have a clear opportunity to qualify for the first knock-out rounds and unlike the case of their northern rivals Juventus, the Partenopei do have more control over whether they’ll be part of that lucky duo to book their place at the table of 16. Some have said that success is 50% luck and 50% hard work–and the same certainly applies in the case of Napoli’s aspirations to become more competitive in the Champions League this season.
As for AC Milan, their domestic campaign appears to be in shambles as they’re sitting only three points away from the drop zone with a poor 12 points from 11 games. This time last year they had earned just two more–14 but back then a certain Stephan El Shaarawy was firing in the goals that oftentimes made the difference between a loss and a tie, and in some cases a draw and a win. This season, however his purple patch in front of goal appears to have faded due to issues with form and fitness, and he has yet to open his league account, whilst his last Champions League goal was during the playoff round versus PSV Eindhoven on 20 August. His international teammate Mario Balotelli hasn’t had much luck, either, accumulating more cards than goals this season, and has been largely disappointing in continental competition so far, with just one goal in the group stages–a rather questionable penalty call that tied the game against Ajax in injury time.
While they’re second in their group, separated by two from third-placed Celtic and group-leader Barcelona, they certainly have not booked their place in the knock-out rounds yet. Yes, they’re guaranteed at least a Europa League berth if the following comes to pass–Celtic beat Ajax and if they somehow manage to defeat the Blaugrana. The former is certainly feasible, as the Bhoys did so a few weeks ago 2-1, but the latter is a whole other story together. The Rossoneri have faced off an interesting eight times over the past three seasons against the Catalans–six in the last two alone, so it’s not surprising that some supporters roll their eyes when they see yet another trip to Camp Nou. And, despite defeating them 2-0 at San Siro last year, Milan have failed to defeat them at their home ground, with their best result being a 2-2 draw during the group stages in the 2011-2012 season thanks to goals from a certain Brazilian duo that are no longer with the club.
So, with that in mind–a loss to Lionel Messi and Co. coupled with a victory for Celtic will see them slip into third place, which will put them, naturally in a difficult position. Why? Well, they weren’t exactly convincing against the Scottish side, with an own goal and a fortuitous strike by Sulley Muntari just enough to earn them all three points and were a lucky recipient of a gift from that ever-fickle Fortuna during the clash with Ajax. And let’s not forget, coupled with their poor run of form in the league against sides like Hellas Verona that any serious European contender should be able to field their second-string side against and still walk away with a win.
Yes, one can keep in mind that Milan did manage to qualify for the knock-out rounds with just eight points, by far the least of anyone in the round of 16 but they were fortunate that Russian outfit Zenit started off their group stages quite poorly, losing 3-0 to débutantes Malaga and being unfortunate to concede an own goal in a 3-2 loss to Milan, followed by a third loss to Anderlecht after winning the home tie by the exact same scoreline a few weeks prior. This time around, they may not be so fortunate, and certainly will be low on confidence following their disappointing 2-0 defeat to Fiorentina this past Saturday.
So, as to which Serie A side will be joining Europe’s finest come 13 December? It’s going to be some tense times ahead for any of these three teams’ supporters as to who will pass their midterm exam and who will fail to make the grade, but it’s certain that the games over the next 48 hours definitely represent a test that none of this trio can afford to not take seriously.