Napoli joined AC Milan and Inter Milan in reaching the Champions League quarter-finals
Milan (AFP) - Napoli’s romp past Eintracht Frankfurt into the Champions League quarter-finals ensured Italy will have three clubs in Friday’s last-eight draw for the first time since 2006.
Serie A, the dominant force in European football in the 1990s and early 2000s, has slipped behind the Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga over the past 20 years, both on the pitch and off it.
But this season’s successes, with AC Milan and Inter Milan also making the quarter-finals, have raised hopes in Italy that the gap is finally beginning to tighten.
Napoli are running away with the Serie A title this term, sitting 18 points clear at the top of the table as they bid for a first Scudetto since 1990.
They have also impressed in Europe, kicking off their Champions League campaign with a 4-1 hammering of last season’s runners-up Liverpool before reaching the quarters for the first time.
Napoli appear to be best-placed of the Italian trio to end the country’s wait for a first European Cup triumph since Jose Mourinho’s Inter lifted the trophy in 2010.
Coach Luciano Spalletti has played down comments from Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola claiming Napoli are the best team in Europe.
Eintracht boss Oliver Glasner said they are on the same level as German heavyweights Bayern Munich.
“I can’t make any comparisons with the Premier League but they are top class, like Bayern Munich,” Glasner said after his side’s 3-0 loss at the Stadio Maradona on Wednesday.
- Glory years to return? -
Inter Milan were the last Italian team to win the Champions League in 2010
Italian football has hit low after low since Inter’s victory over Bayern Munich 13 years ago, with Juventus the only club to reach the Champions League final since – losing to Barcelona in 2015 and Real Madrid in 2017.
The national team failed to qualify for the past two World Cups, although they did win Euro 2020 while playing an unusually expansive style of football.
Napoli are dominating with a team of youngsters committed to attack, similar to the way AC Milan ended their 11-year wait for a league crown last season.
But a return to the glory days still appears a way off.
There was at least one Serie A club in 11 of the 20 Champions League/European Cup finals from 1991-2010, with the trophy heading to Italy five times in that spell.
Italy boasted three quarter-finalists in 2003, 2005 and 2006. In 2003, AC Milan beat Juventus in the final at Old Trafford.
Sustained success may be hard to come by. Italian teams are increasingly relying on bringing through young talent, like the majority of clubs in France and Germany.
None of this season’s Italian quarter-finalists are in the top 20 of Deloitte’s list of richest clubs. Napoli sit outside the top 30.
Juventus, hit by a 15-point deduction in the Italian top flight after financial problems, are the only Serie A team in the top 20.
Premier League clubs make up six of the top 10 and 11 of the top 20, but only Manchester City and Chelsea reached the quarter-finals.
The financial deficit has helped facilitate breakthroughs by youngsters including Napoli duo Victor Osimhen and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and AC Milan winger Rafael Leao.
Osimhen has already spoken of his desire to play in the Premier League and Italian clubs will likely struggle to keep their biggest stars in the transfer market.
Some of the biggest teams have crashed out early in the Champions League, partly because of the draw. Barcelona went out in the group stage, before Paris Saint-Germain lost to Bayern Munich and Liverpool to reigning Champions Real Madrid in the round of 16.
Italy can rejoice at having the largest representation left in Europe’s most prestigious tournament, before worrying about how to repeat the feat in 12 months’ time.