The Italian phoenix rises from the ashes

By Robbie Chalmers

What a night! Well, two nights actually. Roma and Juventus took on Spain’s El Clasico sides in this seasons Champions League quarter finals and after the first leg results, both seemed to be going only one way. Roma, 4-1 down, and Juventus, 3-0 down, faced herculean efforts to turn their ties around as very few, if any, gave them a chance. But they both very nearly made it. Nearly.

The drama at the Bernabeu was ignited by Mario Mandzukic’s goal in the second minute and exploded in the last as Michael Oliver awarded Madrid a penalty, with the very last kick. Gianluigi Buffon was sent off for dissent, Cristiano Ronaldo scored and Real scraped through by the skin of their teeth. The rumblings continued in the aftermath as the Italian press launched astounding criticism of Oliver’s dramatic, but completely correct, call to essentially seal the Old Lady’s fate.

In the midst of all this crazed reaction, outcry of bias and accusation of a Madrid agenda, there is a more important matter to focus on here. AS Roma.

The night before, 1,300km away, Rome’s Stadio Olympico was packed to the hilt with a red sea of noise, flares and belief that tonight could be Roma’s night. But how? The semi-final stages of the competition are often reserved for the elite that dine at the top-table. Bayern, Real, Barcelona and Juventus are the regular occupiers of this stage along with Atletico but they went out before Christmas. Barcelona are unbeaten in La Liga and were many people’s favourites to win the trophy. They had Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, a three goal cushion and fond memories of the hallowed ground they were playing on. After all, it was nine years ago in this very stadium that the Barcelona and Messi dynasty began by winning the trophy. Not since 2010 had another Italian side, other than Juventus, made it to the semi-final stage and not since 1984 had Roma made it that far either. Cue something remarkable.

A similar pattern transpired in the Italian capital as it did in Madrid the following night. Edin Dzeko scored early on, Daniele De Rossi followed up with a cool penalty midway through and Kostas Manolas scored late on to seal a record comeback for an Italian side in Champions League knockout football.

Barcelona were given no reprieve, no penalty and, in all honesty, no time to play. Roma were faster, stronger and more organised. Dzeko was a man possessed, dominating against Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti while this was a game too far for Messi to save his team yet again. At the final whistle an ear-splitting roar of joy erupted from the home crowd as they knew they had witnessed something truly special.

Only on three other occasions has a team overcome a three goal first leg deficit to advance to the next round. The previous was last season’s epic where PSG were beaten 6-1 by, yes… Barcelona.

Praise was universally directed towards one man, Eusebio Di Francesco. Reputations are made on nights like this and he has elevated his ten-fold. Captain De Rossi lauded him for his setup and instructions for the side and after Dzeko’s first goal they never really looked back. Di Francesco was an overachiever at his previous club Sassuolo and he continues to do it at a higher level. He went for it against the Catalans with two up top and three at the back in order to impose themselves in midfield with De Rossi, Naingollan and Strootman. Rarely do we see an Italian side with such an attacking set up in the knockout round, let alone against Barcelona. He has managed to do this all season with a possession style utilised since he joined last summer.

It’s a style we may see Italian teams exercise more in the near future.

Viewers got a glimpse of Maurizio Sarri’s exciting Napoli team this season, Simone Inzaghi has made Lazio second top scorers in Serie A this term and Gennaro Gattuso has added fire into the belly of AC Milan’s limping season. The top six sides in Serie A are all managed by Italian coaches, old and new. And not one of them plays the tradional pragmatic approach as a first choice anymore. Even Juventus sought to bring in more firepower after looking blunt in last season’s final. Contrast that with the failed cautious approach that saw Italy fall at the hands of Sweden and a change of philosophical approach has arisen.

With four Champions league places up for grabs, Italy will have stronger representation next year. No qualifying round means all four will make it to the groups as before often only two would make it. This boost will surely encourage more opportunities for these new managers to test their metal against the very best.

Italy don’t have a financial hold over Europe anymore, but few countries can thrive as much when cast as the underdog. Juventus moving to their own stadium has given them an advantage over the rest but the fact is that Juventus are tenth on the Deliotte Rich list but made it to two finals without the aid of an oil coated billionaire. Roma themselves are well backed by owners but Monchi’s arrival as sporting director last summer shows they are trying to bridge the gap with astute player recruitment. Last night was glimpse at Italian football’s potential.

There is no doubt Juventus and Roma benefited somewhat from a nothing to lose scenario but it also showed how a more proactive approach can work too. A new generation of coaching talent and a stronger Italian presence in Europe mean that an absence of fear and pragmatism could see the Italian game return in a big way.

As Johan Cruyff famously put it: “You play football with your head, and your legs are there to help you.”

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