Champions League Matchweek #3: The Rise and Possible Fall of Italian Football (Again)

Photo via Luca Bruno/Associated Press

By Adriana Leyba

Last year, it seemed that Italian clubs had finally turned their European fortunes around. Not only did Roma make it to the Europa League Final, a game that Jose Mourinho still insists he ‘did not lose,’ but the Champions League stage was dominated by Italian sides. Three Italian teams were present in the quarter-finals for the first time in 17 years. Inter Milan, Napoli, and AC Milan were Italy’s best representatives last year in the biggest competition in the world.

The last time Inter posed a threat in Europe was in 2010 under Mourinho. That year, the team went on to win the treble, achieving their first Champions League title since 1965. Those glory days didn’t last long, though. Since then, Inter failed to qualify six times and reached the quarter-finals only once. Making it to the final was a significant accomplishment that can be traced back to Inter’s defensive identity.

Napoli had a season to remember. They brought the league title home and established their identity in Europe. Just in 2004, Napoli declared bankruptcy. In a way, this was a hidden blessing because it is what brought President Aurelio de Laurentiis into the club’s offices. His philosophy is based on steady growth and keeping the books tidy. Last year, the administration managed to sign talents Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Kim Min-Jae on cheap deals and exploited Victor Osimhen’s talent, all while reducing the total payroll by 30-35%.

Lastly, AC Milan is a household name in the Champions League. As the second club with the most Champions League titles, the club’s fall from grace in the last decade was hard to watch. In the 2010s, they failed to qualify four out of ten times. Making it to the semi-finals last year was a great first step to bring back the golden decades.

Apart from the team’s great individual performances, all of this has also helped Serie A. It has been three years since Juventus’ monopoly was disrupted in the league. The team from Turin had been crowned champions every year since 2012 until Inter won in 2021. Coincidentally, the two other teams to have won it since then have been Milan and Napoli. This increase in competition has attracted more viewers and more benefits for the domestic league.

Now, will these teams surprise us again in this year’s Champions League? The answer is not clear.

For Inter, things are looking relatively good. At the moment, the club is leading Serie A with 25 points in 10 games. In the Champions League, they trail behind Real Sociedad and have won two out of their three games. Nevertheless, the team has shown some discrepancies against bigger teams, so it will be interesting to see how they perform in the knockout stage.

Napoli, on the other hand, has shown several inconsistencies. Even though they are second in their Champions League group, they have shown a different face from last season’s. Kvaratskhelia seems to still be finding the groove he had last season, and Osimhen’s problems with the club have taken the spotlight away from his on-field performances.

AC Milan is in the worst situation of the three. Just this past week, they were defeated 3-0 by Paris Saint-Germain. Even though they are holding steady in their domestic league, currently placing third, their inability to win any of the games played in the Champions League raises several red flags.

The Champions League is the most demanding competition in the world; teams cannot be asked to make it to the later stages every season. However, Italian clubs are in a period of reestablishing their presence in Europe, and to do so successfully, they will have to perform well for several seasons.