With Serie A's fourth UEFA Champions League place coming under increasing threat from the Bundesliga, the last thing Italy needs is for all three of their remaining representatives to be eliminated in the round of 16. But if that is not to happen, FC Internazionale Milano, AC Milan and AS Roma must pull off a feat managed only once before.
With those three clubs having finished second in their groups, last month's first legs did not go well as each of the trio were beaten at home. Now, over the next fortnight, they will attempt to overturn one-goal deficits – Roma (2-3) at FC Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday, Milan (0-1) at Tottenham Hotspur FC a day later and holders Internazionale (0-1) at FC Bayern München the following week. The Giallorossi at least have the fillip of a new man at the helm.
Gazzetta dello Sport did not hide its dismay. Under the headline 'In the dead of night', the newspaper wrote: "Goodbye Europe ... Following Milan and Roma's bad examples when they both lost at home, Inter let Bayern beat them and can only hang on to a slight hope of winning the return leg. Meanwhile, Italian football cuts another poor figure, with three failures in as many exams. Inter's loss is the worst of all, given the Nerazzurri are the defending champions and they let Bayern dominate them."
Such pessimism is justified by history. Just once in the UEFA Champions League era has a side overturned a post group stage first-leg home defeat. AFC Ajax lost 1-0 to Panathinaikos FC in the 1995/96 semi-finals before winning 3-0 in Greece – only to fall to Juventus in Rome.
Each team can look to precedents. Inter on their travels have reversed two out of six UEFA competition first-leg deficits – against FC TPS Turku in the 1987/88 UEFA Cup second round and versus Olympique Lyonnais at the same stage a decade later. Both Milan – in their debut European tie against 1. FC Saarbrücken in 1955/56 – and Roma, at 1. FC Nürnberg in 1988/89, have done it once before. However, neither Shakhtar nor Tottenham or Bayern have ever been knocked out of Europe after an away first-leg win.
Last season, when Inter took the title and no English club made it past the quarter-finals, it seemed the balance of power could be shifting back to Serie A from the Premier League. With Inter, Milan and Roma's disappointments (following UC Sampdoria's play-off exit), compared to away wins for Tottenham and Chelsea FC plus good results for Arsenal FC and Manchester United FC, the balance may have been restored. Do you think there is a way back for Italy's finest?
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