There was a time when Italy ruled the roost over European football. The likes of Diego Maradona, Zinedine Zidane and the original Ronaldo, O Fenômeno, would all see southern Europe as the prime destination to ply their trade. Lazio, Juventus and the two Milan sides, AC and Inter, made Italy a hub for the most entertaining action. Alongside it came plenty of success in the Champions League and UEFA Cup, at a time where teams in England simply couldn’t compete. Manchester United were perhaps the only occasion when their side of 1999 beat Juventus in the semi-finals.
Milan had often been the most popular place to play though. The boisterous San Siro crowd was host to some famous nights, and even in the twilight of its life now, trophies are still being lifted. However, the 1990s was perhaps Italian football’s peak, with both sides possessing a plethora of fantastic players and managers.
The turn of the new millennium saw more of the same, with AC Milan winning the Champions League in 2003 and 2007, whilst also making the final in Istanbul in 2005, a match they’d love to erase from history. And of course, there was José Mourinho’s Inter treble, perhaps one of the most well-drilled teams to play the game. With all these great memories though, the dark side of Italian football really overshadowed the good work in Lombardy.
Juventus won the Scudetto in 2006 but were stripped of their title and relegated the following season for match-fixing. The darkest hour in Serie A. It was a state of affairs that really blemished the reputation of Italian football, and with the emergence of Barcelona and Real Madrid in La Liga, and the competitive nature of the Premier League’s big four clubs, Italy really went into the shadows, with Inter’s treble a brief exception.
The Old Lady then ruled the roost throughout the 2010s, capturing their first title a decade ago and winning it every year until last season, when inter were crowned champions under Antonio Conte. Although the former Chelsea manager departed at the end of the season, he left the side in good condition, which coincided with Stefano Pioli’s AC securing Champions League qualification for the first time in eight years. While both teams are now out of Europe’s senior competition, and both tasted defeat to Liverpool, there’s now a Serie A title race in the making redolent of Italian football’s glory years.
Pioli’s side are just edging it ahead of the international break, but have Inter and Napoli hot on their tail. Inter have a game in hand and if they can win at home to Fiorentina, will reduce the gap to just a point. The title race looks set to go down to the wire, with AC’s destiny in their own hands. Despite Napoli and Inter appearing to be their only legitimate competition, the 56-year-old has insisted Juventus still also have a chance at reclaiming their crown.
“I’m sure that the more we go on, the better we will improve. Now the goals for everyone are maximum, so the effort must certainly be high.”
“Juventus are inside [the title race],” he said. “Nine games [remaining] are a lot, 27 points are a lot. All the top five are definitely inside [the race].”
The next Milan derby is also proving to be an interesting proposition. A goalless draw in the first leg of the Coppa Italia semi-final was closely contested, but whoever breaks the deadlock first will probably go on to win the tournament overall, with the football odds today backing either of the sides against the winner of Juventus vs Fiorentina.
It’s refreshing to see both Milan sides compete on all cylinders once again, and given a few more transfer windows, it will be interesting if they could once again make a serious bid for the Champions League, with eight titles between them.