There’s no escaping the fact that the draws for the Champions League and the Europa League are ridiculous. These hugely overdone gala affairs take three hours to achieve what could be done in ten minutes. The saving graces - scowling club directors, getting to see Clarence Seedorf again - are vastly overshadowed by the ludicrous complexity of everything and UEFA’s willingness to blow their own trumpet at every conceivable opportunity. The entire event is comical, but it doesn’t really matter.
When you’re watching, and you see your team’s name drawn out of the little ping pong ball, the absurdity is forgotten. The balance of the season can hang in the next few seconds, deciding whether you will get a big match against a traditional giant (and lose) or be drawn against some far-flung nobody (and win, derailing your domestic season in the process). It’s an ebb and flow of anxiety and relief.
Then, when it’s all over, the Internet lights up with discussion, arguments, arrogance, terror, insults and insistent claims of “Actually, they’re pretty good, you know”. The truth is, we won’t really know who got the best draw until the matches are over. But the speculation is half the fun. So what can the Italian teams expect from the draw?
UEFA Champions League
Real Madrid vs. Napoli
Real Madrid vs. Napoli#UCLdrawThey'll fancy that pic.twitter.com/WRn7iR689L
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) December 12, 2016
Champions League Group Stage Die Hards (all three of them) knew that Group B was the purists’ choice. Napoli, Benfica, Beşiktaş and Dynamo Kyiv fought hard for six rounds, to the point where the final match day could have seen almost any combination of teams go through.
And then the Turkish side managed to collapse so badly against the Ukrainians that their goalkeeper burst into tears. That left Napoli topping one of the most competitive groups we’ve seen in a long while.
As a reward, the Neapolitans were drawn against the reigning champions, the biggest football team in the world, the most decorated European side of all time — they got Real Madrid.
Madrid themselves had a difficult time in the group stage. Caged in with Borussia Dortmund, a late Marco Reus goal at the Bernabéu was enough to send them tumbling all the way down to second. There’s no doubt Napoli would have been hoping for a handier tie, but could they achieve a massive upset?
Firstly, let’s consider the fact that no team has ever retained the Champions League in its current format. Therefore, history says that Madrid need to lose sometime – why not here? Furthermore, Madrid might be without one of their best players.
Gareth Bale was hit with a long term injury which could see him out until March. There’s no side in the world with greater depth than Madrid, but the Welshman’s blend of raw power and goal-scoring ability is difficult to replicate. Bale has tortured Italian teams in the past, so his absence could provide a real opportunity.
But Napoli has injury issues of their own. Arkadiusz Milik, recently acquired from Ajax, was just beginning to find his feet in Serie A when he suffered a debilitating injury. Edging closer and closer to fitness, it’s debatable what sort of shape he’ll be in come the round of 16. Not only has the injury kept him out of the side, but it has prevented the Polish striker from truly integrating himself in the team.
Napoli will almost certainly reinforce in the winter window, so emboldening their striking options seems a certainty. Whether it will be enough to unsettle the Madrid defense remains to be seen.
Napoli versus Real Madrid is one of the ties of the round. They don’t come more prestigious than this. Zinedine Zidane’s current run as the luckiest man in football will eventually come to an end. There’s no denying that Napoli face an uphill struggle, but with nothing to lose, there are no certainties — except for a last minute Sergio Ramos header that knocks Napoli out, that’s definitely going to happen.
Porto vs. Juventus
— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) December 12, 2016
So this one’s a dead rubber, right? Juventus, recent finalists and by far the best team in Italy, versus Porto, the Portuguese runners-up who have been struggling to assert themselves in Europe in recent years and came second in their group to smash-and-grab merchants Leicester City.
There’s no denying that Juventus have one of the best sides in Europe at the moment, and, having consistently conquered their domestic league, they’ve clearly set their sights on European glory. That’s why they bought Gonzalo Higuain, going all out in the summer to reach that one massive goal: winning the Champions League.
But they’re not invincible. Already this season Juventus have shown that they’re far from their impenetrable, impregnable best. That rock-solid defense is a year older. The post-Pogba midfield isn’t quite perfect. Nobody is quite sure whether Paulo Dybala and Higuain can mesh together perfectly.
Sure, they’re top of Serie A, but that’s pretty much a given. This is a Juventus side which has gambled everything on success in Europe. Without it, their season will be a failure and, in knockout football, anything can happen.
On the other hand, there have been signs that Porto might be back with a bang. They thrashed a disinterested (and already qualified) Leicester on the last match day. Yacine Brahimi and Otávio are capable of carving open almost any side.
Furthermore, just like Napoli, nothing much is expected of Porto. They have nothing to lose. There’s no shame in being beaten by Juventus, but the Italians will be terrified of the possibility of being knocked out at the first legitimate hurdle. Should Porto get a decent result in the first leg, nerves might set about the Italian champions. Unlike Napoli, however, the odds seem firmly in Juventus’s favor.
UEFA Europa League
Borussia Monchengladbach vs Fiorentina
— footballitalia (@footballitalia) December 12, 2016
And now we get to the real football. The Europa League matches are much more finely balanced and much more interesting on many levels. We’ll start with Borussia Monchengladbach against Fiorentina. There’s no doubt that Gladbach are one of the biggest names in the draw, both literally and figuratively. Fiorentina, too, are one of the better sides left in the tournament. Essentially, this is a matchup that both sides would have rather avoided.
This current Fiorentina side seem to be well-built for knockout football, however. They are nothing if not obstinate, though they veer towards dreary more often than defensive.
They’ve started to climb the table in recent weeks, but Paulo Sousa’s side have yet to really click. It’s not a happy camp, seemingly, with the coach and some of the players grinding up against one another. Sousa might not even be the manager come the knockout round.
But Fiorentina do have players who can make a difference. The youngster, Federico Bernardeschi, is becoming the team’s most important player, while Nikola Kalinic – the very definition of a streaky striker – seems to be hitting a bit of form.
Both Kalinic and Khouma Babacar have four goals each in this tournament. But will they be running hot or cold come February?
As badly as things seem to be going for Fiorentina, things are worse for Gladbach. This has already become a season to forget. Currently sitting 12th in the Bundesliga, the summer departures of Granit Xhaka and Håvard Nordtveit mean a midfield which has been a far cry from last season. They’re not scoring enough and they’re not keeping many clean sheets. But there’s talent there, especially in the form of Mahmoud Dahoud and Thorgan Hazard.
So this is a matchup between two sides who should be doing better. Essentially, by the time we reach mid-February, the likely winner of this match will be the team who has most effectively shaken off its 2016 funk. Whether that’s by firing a manager, bringing in players or just switching up the tactics, who knows?
Villarreal vs. AS Roma
— UEFA Europa League (@EuropaLeague) December 12, 2016
This could well be the season’s best matchup anywhere in Europe thus far. It’s all about balance. When you’re looking at a tie, you don’t want one side to be much better than the other (Porto vs. Juventus) and you don’t want both sides to be equally poor (Fiorentina vs. Gladbach.) You also don’t really want one side to be favored too strongly (Real Madrid vs. Napoli), as all of these factors skew the odds one way or the other and dominate the narrative.
Two good teams, equally matched, is ideal. That’s what we have with Villarreal and Roma.
The Spanish side are fourth in La Liga, the Italians are second in Serie A. Both have players coveted throughout the continent, such as Mateo Musacchio, Cédric Bakambu, Mohamed Salah, Kostas Manolas and Radja Nainggolan. There’s even a core of old veterans in Bruno Soriano, Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi. Villarreal did exceptionally well in the tournament last year, while Roma will be looking for their first taste of European silverware.
The managers, Luciano Spaletti and Fran Escribá, have successfully navigated turbulent waters in recent months and will be eager to show off their sides’ true capabilities with the rest of Europe watching. These two sides should be among the favorites to lift the Europa League trophy, but they’ve been thrown together early on. That’s what makes this such an exciting prospect.
You’d struggle to fit a knife between the two sides and it’s a razor’s edge that both teams will have to walk along if they want to win. That’s why it’s the best tie of the round. It might not be the best prospect for those hoping to increase the Italian co-efficient, but that’s going to matter a lot less in a few years anyway.
For now, the potential battle between Villarreal and Roma is where the eyes of every neutral should be focused. And seeing as there aren’t many sides who can match Roma when it comes to throwing away a winning position, you’d have to favor the Spaniards.