Arrividerci? Italian clubs on the brink of Europa elimination
Christian Soler on May 13, 2015 02:47 PM
Follow Christian Soler on Twitter: @christiansoler
Uninvited guests decided to crash the pizza party.
The much-anticipated UEFA Europa League all-Italian final between heavyweights Napoli and Fiorentina just might not come to fruition as both Serie A squads are at a disadvantage heading into their respective second legs. Ukrainian outfit Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, the tournament’s Cinderella story on steroids, pounced on one of the few errors its Sicilian opponent committed to secure a draw and the all-important away goal while Sevilla simply throttled a Fiorentina side that looked more like an intramural team than the loaded squad it is on paper.
Quo vadis Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk? Anyone who had not heard of the team prior to this season’s Europa League cannot be blamed. There isn’t much beyond Ukraine’s two giants, Dynamo Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk. But the Warriors of Light have defied any and all expectations, knocking out European giants Olympiakos, Ajax, and Club Brugge en route to the semifinals. They are led by one of the most sought after wingers in world football, Yevhen Konoplyanka, who has been wanted by practically the entire English Premier League since Euro 2012 and is undoubtedly the most wanted Ukrainian footballer since the legendary Andriy Shevchenko, who cost Milan $25 million from Dynamo Kiev. He’s flanked in midfield by Ruslan Rotan, whose been capped 78 times by his country, and supports either or both forwards Yevhen Seleznyov and Croatian international Nikola Kalinić.
Konoplyanka, one of the world’s most promising wide men, will cost Europe’s big guns more than an arm and a leg (courtesy of Zimbio)
But, as Dnipro’s first leg performance against Napoli showed, it is more than just a Konoplyanka show. His sub-par showing wasn’t enough to slow down coach Myron Markevych’s unit as substitute Seleznyov’s 80th minute strike hushed Estadio San Paolo. While Napoli was aimlessly searching for that second goal to put the underdogs away, goalkeeper Denys Boyko was brilliantly stopping shots and keeping the 2014 Ukrainian League runners-up in the match.
While Napoli dominated almost every pertinent statistical category, it wilted where it mattered most. Manager Rafa Benítez’s side had more shots, dominated possession, and created more chances. But a more nuanced look at these stats reveals just how Napoli simply went through the motions, perhaps with the thought that they were playing an inferior side. The usually proficient Gonzalo Higuain missed all six of his attempts from inside the penalty area, epitomizing Gli Azzurri’s pathetic display in the face of goal (one conversion and 19 misses in highly dangerous scoring areas).
The service was horrible as well. Napoli’s crossing game was abominable. Between fullbacks Christian Maggio and Faouzi Ghoulam, only one cross was completed all match.
To top it all off, Benítez’s charges were all over the place, literally, while Dnipro maintained its shape and patiently waited for a chance to pounce. The blue zones in the middle to the final third of Napoli’s heat map is downright disturbing.
Sure, Napoli faces the daunting task of travelling to a country where even the best football clubs can’t get a point. The Italians need to win by at least a goal to advance outright. The firepower – Higuain, José Calléjon, Marek Hamśík, David López, and Dries Mertens – is there. Benítez will go for the kill with his trademark 4-2-3-1, but perhaps employ a double pivot with one of the holding midfielders accompanying Gökhan Inler, either López or Uruguayan Walter Gargano, playing close to the three-man attacking midfield. Dnipro, meanwhile, has employed a stubborn 4-5-1, both in Europe and Ukraine. Expect Markevych’s men to employ it to frustrate the Andalucíans. Napoli should advance. The opposite result would come down as one of the biggest shockers in Europa League/UEFA Cup history.
The other Italian club, Fiorentina, was simply outclassed by one of the rising outfits in European football. The reigning Europa League title-holders showed they have 1v1 game-changers across all positions. Attacking midfielder Aleix Vidal pounced on poor marking and tons of space to score Sevilla’s opening two goals. Perhaps it was a case of the Fiorentina defense focusing too much on the La Liga side’s other threats like Carlos Bacca, Éver Banega, and Vitolo. Not an excuse, however, especially when La Viola’s defending was as atrocious as it was. Fiorentina’s tackling rate was too sub-par on a stage where the lights shine brightest.
A 3-0 deficit away may just be too high a mountain to climb for Fiorentina. Josip Iličić, Mohamed Salah, and the immortal Mario Gómez are the coach Vincenzo Montella’s target men, supported in the midfield by the Chilean pair of Matías Fernández and David Pizarro. Montella may also opt for veteran Alberto Aquilani and Juan Manuel Vargas, both of whom started in the weekend win away to Empoli.
Colombian Carlos Bacca is another product of the South American’s supply line of quality goal-scorers
Without some stellar Italian performances, that pizza party in Warsaw may not just happen after all.
UEFA EUROPA LEAGUE SEMIFINAL 2nd Leg
May 15 3:00am Fiorentina v Sevilla (LIVE on BALLS Channel)
May 15 3:00am Dnipro v Napoli (LIVE on ABS-CBN Sports + Action)