LONDON: It’s the only European trophy AC Milan has not won, yet there is more at stake for the Italian powerhouse and some other big teams when the Europa League kicks off its knockout stage this week.
Once treated with contempt by heavyweights, Europe’s second tier competition carries more value since UEFA’s decision to award a Champions League qualifying place to the winner, which started with the 2015-16 season.
After a poor start to the season, heavy spending Milan are showing signs of improvement under new coach Gennaro Gattuso. But still seventh in Serie A, winning the Europa League might be the best option for the seven-time European champions to return to Europe’s top table.
Milan face Bulgaria’s Ludogorets Razgrad in the round of 32 on Thursday.
Milan’s situation might sound familiar to Arsene Wenger, whose Arsenal side are losing hope of making the top four in the Premier League. The London club is in sixth place, seven points from the Champions League places.
“I’m not a great fan of the Europa League being a qualifier of the Champions League,” Wenger said.
But Wenger might want to follow the example of his rival, Jose Mourinho, who changed his negative view of the Europa League after a 2-0 victory over Ajax in the final last year saved his first season at Manchester United.
Arsenal, the only English club remaining in the competition, open the second round against Sweden’s Ostersund.
“Looking at their results in Europe, they have done well so we have to prepare properly,” Wenger said about the club led by English manager Graham Potter, a former Football League defender.
It will be interesting to see if Wenger sticks to his habit of fielding a reserve team for the Europa League matches. What proved effective in the group stage might not be enough in the knockout rounds.
Wenger will have to make changes upfront after his two regular strikers in the group stage, Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott, left the Emirates Stadium for Chelsea and Everton, respectively.
The competition is spiced up with some big names that dropped down from the Champions League.
Two of them immediately face each other, Italy’s Serie A leaders Napoli and RB Leipzig, the second-placed team in the Bundesliga.
Atletico Madrid, the 2010 and 2012 Europa League winners, were drawn to face Copenhagen.
Borussia Dortmund, who are third in the Bundesliga after two straight wins, face Italy’s Atalanta.
Also, it’s Marseille vs. Braga; Celtic vs. Zenit St. Petersburg; and Lyon vs.Villarreal.
Fifteen of the 16 opening legs will be played on Thursday, with the return games on Feb. 22. In Tuesday’s only match, Red Star Belgrade play CSKA Moscow.
Giorgio Chiellini confident Juventus can buck recent trend of Supercoppa defeats
Skipper also happy the match is being played in Jeddah, and sees it as a ‘step forward’ for Saudi Arabia
AC Milan coach Gennaro Gattuso sidesteps questions about Gonzalo Higuain’s rumored move to English Premier League
Updated 16 January 2019
JEDDAH: Juventus have been experiencing a worrying trend in cup finals of late. Despite securing the Serie A and Coppa Italia double for three seasons running, they have lost back-to-back Supercoppas and seven out of nine European cup finals. It’s a trend, however, that captain Giorgio Chiellini believes can be halted on January 16 when his side takes on AC Milan in the Supercoppa Italiana final at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
“We want to change that trend that has seen us lose the last two Supercoppa finals, and this is the ideal opportunity,” said the defender. “We have changed a great deal in two years, but we’ve got to prove ourselves with actions rather than words because we let a few too many of these trophies slip through our fingers and it’s a shame.
“It’s going to be a difficult match but the objective is to start 2019 lifting a trophy above our heads.”
Chiellini also defended the choice of Jeddah as the venue for the game against a backdrop of criticism by some. He said that it was “right” to give the Saudi port city the chance to host the showpiece match.
“I am happy this game is being played here and can be seen as a further reason for progress in this country, and I see it as a step forward and not a problem,” he said. “We (soccer players) cannot change the world but initiatives such as this can provide a new start.
“We have been given a warm welcome and I hope tomorrow can be remembered by the Saudi people as a wonderful celebration. We have to provide a spectacle of Italian football and know that all fans will be happy with our performances.”
As the rival teams faced the media on the eve of the match, both were confident about their chances of lifting the first silverware of the Italian soccer season. This year marks the 31st Supercoppa, a match contested by the previous season’s Serie A domestic league champions and the winners of the Coppa Italia. When a single team wins both honors, as was the case last season, they take on the Coppa Italia runners-up.
This year’s game, the tickets for which reportedly sold out in two days, might also mark a farewell to Italian football for striker Gonzalo Higuain, who is currently on loan to AC Milan from Juventus but is widely rumored to be on the verge of a move to Chelsea in the English Premier League. If the Argentine international is indeed on his way out, he will be hoping to end his stay with the Rossoneri with some silverware while also, perhaps, sticking it to his parent club.
Asked about the status of any transfer talks, AC Milan head coach Gennaro Gattuso was careful to avoid feeding the rumor mill.
“At this moment, I have to repeat the same words: there are many rumors but Higuain is training well and working with everyone just fine and is at our disposal,” he said. “I base my decisions on how players train during the week and how they work with the staff and their teammates. We’ll see tomorrow whether he plays or not.
“I want to reiterate that Higuain has never told me he wants to leave. I am waiting for that. He has to decide what to do, how to resolve this issue, but right now he is training with great professionalism. We’ll see.”
Gattuso then nipped this line of questioning in the bud by adding: “I want to be honest; I don’t even want to talk about Higuain as we’re here for the Supercoppa.”
Juventus head coach Massimiliano Allegri, meanwhile, is well aware that while they are undefeated in Serie A this season after 19 games, with 17 wins and two draws, league form counts for little in a cup final, as evidenced by their recent results in such games. As such, he is keen to avoid any complacency among his players.
“One of the great strengths of this team is our respect for the opposition, otherwise you don’t win as many games as we have,” he said. “There are 22 points separating our teams in Serie A but those don’t matter here. If we do not have great humility and respect for Milan tomorrow, then it’s unlikely we will win the game.”
The prematch press conference inevitably included questions about Cristiano Ronaldo. Since his 112 million euro ($128 million) move to Juventus from Real Madrid last summer, the Portuguese star has netted 15 goals in 25 appearances. On Wednesday, the five-time winner of the Ballon d'Or — an award presented each year by France Football magazine to the player judged to be the best in the world — will aim to lift his maiden trophy with his new club, after having bagged 15 titles during his nine years with the Spanish giants.
While Ronaldo did not appear at the press conference, Allegri was asked whether the striker had arrived in Italy with a stronger and hungrier desire to win.
“He would have to win something first to prove that,” the coach said. “Cristiano is accustomed to winning; he has won four of the past five Champions Leagues and many more titles. Ronaldo is the best player in the world and clearly an added bonus for us. Our situation has certainly improved with his presence.”
Wednesday night’s match is sure to be hotly contested, as Juventus and AC Milan currently share the record for Supercoppa titles, with seven each. While Juventus are making their seventh successive Supercoppa appearance, it is perhaps AC Milan who can lay claim to bragging rights, given that the last time these two teams met in the Supercoppa, in 2016, the Rossoneri ended up on top following a penalty shoot-out after the game ended in a 1-1 draw after extra time. With all the talking officially done, all that remains is a historic night of top quality soccer at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium.