The UEFA Champions League is held in high regard not just in Europe but across the globe for the multitude of storylines and perspectives it offers. Of course, to the victor go the spoils. But, football isn’t as uni-dimensional as that.
Surely one part is about the elite teams trying to assert their dominance over the fabled continent of Europe in order to claim the glittering trophy and reap all that comes with it, but on the flip side, it is also about the surprise package and dark horses that defy the odd, and make a glorious run every neutral could watch, enjoy and consume in the true spirit of the game.
Villareal served as a grand reminder for the teams punching above their weight in the European elite contest last year around before they were shown the exit door by losing finalists Liverpool in the final four. By no means were they the first or last of its kind, but the prompt that a club in relatively modest circumstances can stand amongst the big boys is one that will be cherished by teams across Europe as they try and emulate the heroics of minnows-past.
And this year, it wouldn’t be remiss to look at Luciano Spaletti’s Napoli from that perspective.
The runaway Serie A leaders have ripped it up on the grandest of stages this year and their resounding win over English giants Liverpool is a testament to the prowess of the side from Naples.
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“Napoli’s form has been magnificent. It’s been a breath of fresh air really. Nobody would have called what’s going with Napoli in the Serie A and the Champions League”, said former footballer and manager Ashley Westwood as he expressed his delight with watching one of Italy’s culture-rich teams prosper at the European stage.
“I remember them destroying Liverpool when they played them on the group stage. Absolutely annihilated them,” the 46-year-old reflected on Napoli’s demolition of the Merseyside club.
“They are in great form. Their squad is solid. Victor Osimhen up front is in terrific form; I wouldn’t be surprised if he goes for big money. They did lose to Lazio over the weekend, but prior to that, they had been brilliant. Their record has been incredible.”
A look at the Italian domestic league table would suggest no difference to Napoli’s dominance this season. 65 points from 25 games, with 21 wins and 2 losses and draws each. They lead their closest challengers, Inter, by a whopping 15 points as the final stretch of the season rolls around.
“They have goals coming in from the midfield. They have multiple goal-scorers all over the pitch. Hirving Lozano, Giovanni Simeone, and Matteo Politano can all score goals at any given time.”
The upturn in Napoli’s performances could to some extent speak about the resurgence of the once-famous Italian football that has tapered with the test of time as the English and Spanish football scenes started exploding.
But, if signs are to be believed, the peninsular nation of Italy seems to have turned a corner and could put up a stand against the contemporary giants.
“Looking across the table you spot giants like Juventus, who have had some points deducted this season, but there are also great sides such as AC Milan in the Champions League which bodes well for Italian football.”
“Atalanta have also been a good side in the last couple of years. So, there are many good Italian teams, but for me, if anyone’s going to do it from Italy, it has to be Napoli.”
“They are two goals up against Frankfurt away from home in the first leg and they are on target to get into the quarters and it wouldn’t surprise me if they get to the latter stages of the tournament,” the former defender asserted.
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Away Goals, Drama and Luck:
The knockout equation at this year’s edition of the UEFA Champions League might seem a bit different to the eyes that have gazed upon the pitches and telly’s year after year as a crucial detail has been altered and the impact of the same could prove to be absolutely profound in a tournament where every detail matters.
The away goals rule- the constraint that has made many a fixture a game to remember due to the variations and dynamics involved and the sudden twists and turns that embody the rule’s significance.
“Obviously, as you know, the away goals rule has been scrapped. I don’t think you have a game plan such as keeping it tight away from home bringing them to our ground and doing the rest.”
“All you concentrate on is maximising your performance. With all the positional analysis, you give the players as much detail and information as you can to prepare them for playing the side they are competing against,” opined the former Bengaluru FC manager.
Right from the famous Barcelona remontada against PSG to the Ajax heartbreak at the hands of Tottenham Hotspurs is courtesy of the long-standing rule, that has recently been scrapped.
And hence there is bound to be a marked change in the way that teams approach the home and away legs of their UCL knockout fixtures.
“And then you basically concentrate on yourself and your performance and you know if you can play to your full potential and everybody performs to their maximum ability, you’re going to win the game and you’re going to go through,” the Englishman elucidated.
“There is a little bit of luck that is involved, but you just concentrate on maximising the output and performance and the result normally takes care of itself there.”
“You can’t go in there and say ‘Let’s do this in the away game and let’s do this in the home game’, you concentrate on playing to the best of your ability as everybody in the last 16 would believe that they can advance to the quarters,” concluded the Manchester United academy graduate.
Watch the LIVE coverage of UEFA Champions League 2022-23: Napoli vs Eintracht Frankfurt on Sony Sports Ten 2, Sony Sports Ten 3 (Hindi) & Sony Sports Ten 4 (Tamil & Telugu) channels on 16th March 2023 at 1:30 am IST
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