The performances of Serie A’s representatives in the quarter-finals of Europe’s knockout competitions showed the worst as well as the best aspects of Italian football, particularly its character and mentality.
Lazio comically crashed out of the Europa League on Thursday night while Juventus were eliminated from the Champions League in controversial circumstances on Wednesday evening, and Roma performed a football miracle to progress through to the semi-final of Europe’s premier club competition on Tuesday night.
The Biancocelesti won the first leg of their quarter-final 4-2 against Red Bull Salzburg in Rome and were leading 1-0 in the second leg in Austria, but they committed defensive suicide, conceding three goals in a four-minute spell.
Italian teams have a habit of doing enough to win or can develop complacency after gaining a huge lead but this shows that they must keep playing until the final whistle and never underestimate their opponents. Lazio have been a dangerous counterattacking side but Salzburg were able to expose their defensive frailties when the tie seemed done and dusted.
Juventus came close to knocking out Real Madrid from the Champions League, overturning a three-goal deficit from the first leg to lead 3-0 at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, but a controversial penalty was awarded by English referee for a foul on Merengues winger Lucas Vazquez by Juve defender Medhi Benatia ended their hopes of reaching the semi-finals.
Bianconeri president Andrea Agnelli hinted at a conspiracy against Italian clubs in Europe and suggested that UEFA needed to introduce VAR as well as change the referee designators once every few years. Also venting his disappoint was an emotional Gianluigi Buffon, who said after the match that Oliver had decided to “kill a team’s dream” and that “instead of a heart, the referee has a rubbish bin”.
Having a victim mentality is not going to take Italian football forward and it sadly won’t be the last time anyone from an Italian team will criticise refereeing decisions. In the case of Juventus, it shows that they still have not learned from their previous failures in the Champions League.
It was a heroic performance from La Vecchia Signora in Spain but a squad of their calibre should not have lost the first leg 3-0 in Turin, even to a team as strong as Madrid. Coach Massimiliano Allegri sets his team up to do enough to win matches in Serie A but he got his tactics completely wrong at the Juventus Stadium.
Juventus legend Giampiero Boniperti once said that “winning is not important, [but] it is the only thing that counts” but the winning-at-all-costs mentality has not got the club far in Europe. The Bianconeri did things in the traditional Italian way and failed in Turin but they came so close to glory when they came out of their shell and played attacking football in Madrid.
If Allegri had organised his team better in the first leg and they played with the same flair, guile, and swagger like they did in the second leg, perhaps the outcome of the tie would be different and Oliver would not have been scrutinised. Juve and other Italian teams must learn to control their own destiny.
At least Roma can say that they were the masters of theirs as they incredibly eliminated Barcelona in the quarter-finals. Despite losing 4-1 in Spain, Giallorossi coach Eusebio Di Francesco and club president James Pallotta were confident about causing a surprise.
Such overconfidence has impacted on their Serie A title battles with Juve in the past but Di Francesco gave his team the belief as well as the structure to perform magnificently in the second leg. There were controversial refereeing decisions over the two legs but the Giallorossi stuck to their game and knocked out the five-time European champions.
The Giallorossi tactician demonstrated tactical flexibility by switching from his preferred 4-3-3 to the 3-4-1-2 and his philosophy was a mix of principles from two of his former Roma coaches Fabio Capello and Zdenek Zeman. He implemented the pragmatism and organisation of Capello but still incorporated the intense pressing, quick ball movement, and attacking flair synonymous with Zeman’s coaching style.
Roma not only showed that Italian teams could play attacking football but also that the Giallorossi were a team capable of overcoming one of Europe’s giants instead of self-destructing like in previous big games. If Juventus’ efforts were in vain, Roma certainly made their performance count for something.
The European ties involving the Italian teams provided their share of drama and controversy and the football public saw them display an array of emotions after their respective matches.
The Lazio tie perhaps showed everyone some of the worst aspects of the Italian football, the Juventus one arguably highlighted both the best and the worst, and Roma demonstrated to Europe some of the attributes that makes calcio special.