Friday, February 23, 2024

Lazio vs. Bayern, Napoli vs. Barcelona: Which Italian side has the best Champions League chance to advance?

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Champions League is finally back and three Italian teams are still in the competition, after AC Milan were knocked out in the group phase and will play in the Europa League playoff this Thursday against Rennes. Inter might be one of the candidates to win the whole tournament especially after reaching the 2022-23 final, at least if they can get past a tricky round of 16 matchup with Atletico Madrid, Napoli and Lazio are the outsiders and definitely not the favorites to qualify for the quarterfinals. Lazio will face Bayern Munich on Wednesday while Napoli will play FC Barcelona in one of the most exciting clashes of the round. So, who has the better chance of advancing to the quarterfinals? As always, you can catch full coverage as the Champions League returns across CBS, Paramount+CBS Sports Network and CBS Sports Golazo Network.

Lazio’s current status 

The side coached by Maurizio Sarri is not living their best lives this season. After reaching second place last year in the league, during summer 2023 the Biancocelesti saw their star Sergej Milinkovic-Savic leaving the club as he joined Al-Hilal in the Saudi Pro League. Lazio worked to replace him with some young players including Nicolò Rovella from Juventus and Mateo Guendozi from Marseille, and also signed free agent Daichi Kamada, winger Gustav Isaksen and striker Taty Castellanos, who was needed to find a real backup option tothe  club’s captain Ciro Immobile. Despite the summer changes, in the first part of the season Lazio struggled to play as we expect from a team coached by Sarri. On top of that, they also struggled in terms of results. 

The Biancocelesti are currently eighth in the table in Serie A, five points behind the top four, but they will face Juventus in the Coppa Italia semifinals after beating city rivals AS Roma thanks to a goal scored by Mattia Zaccagni, but before all that, Bayern Munich in the Champions League await. They drew the German giants after finishing second in the group stage behind Atletico Madrid. Lazio’s relatively poor season so far is largely due to the fact they are struggling to score goals, as they only scored 28 in 23 Serie A matches (only Torino scored less in the top ten). Their main goal-scorer, Ciro Immobile, had a challenging season so far due to injuries and only scored nine goals in all competitions until now, but against Cagliari last weekend scored his 200th Serie A goal, becoming the eighth all-time scorer in the history of the league. 

A season to forget for Napoli 

So far, this has been one of the most disappointing seasons for Napoli of the last decade. Not only because of the (poor) results but mainly because it comes the year after the Azzurri managed to win their first Serie A title in more than thirty years, the first one after the Diego Armando Maradona era. Summer of 2023 started off with an immediate internal earthquake when former coach Luciano Spalletti decided to step down while the fans were still celebrating the much awaited title. At the same time, Napoli’s sport director Cristiano Giuntoli also left and decided to join Juventus. Two of the main faces of the recent success of the club both decided to leave at the same time, right after winning their historic title. Napoli;s owner decided to appoint former Al-Nassr coach Rudi Garcia, but things didn’t work well and the Frenchman was sacked last November, with Walter Mazzarri taking the role as caretaker manager until the end of the season. 

With Mazzarri, things are going even worse. After sixteen games in charge, Napoli only have had six wins under Mazzarri and only scored 15 goals since he was appointed. Also, in nine of these sixteen games Napoli failed to score and the club is currently ninth in the table, seven points behind the top four. Nigerian striker Victor Osimhen will finally be back this week after losing the 2024 AFCON final against Ivory Coast on Sunday, and Napoli expect him to drive the team in the upcoming games. The feeling is that the club are already planning next year, but it’s too early to think about it, because the end of the season is not around the corner yet. Napoli have to fight to finish in the top four and will also try to go through in the Champions League knockout phase, as FC Barcelona are not in a much better shape. If results won’t arrive, it’s not impossible to see another manager change in the coming weeks. 

Who has the better chance at an upset? 

Having said that, their opponents are not having their best seasons either. Bayern Munich are currently second in the Bundesliga and lost a key game against Bayer Leverkusen over the weekend, that can potentially become the end of their dream to win the title for the 12th year in a row, but at the same time won the group stage of the Champions League without losing a game. After signing Harry Kane in the summer 2023 from Tottenham, the main issues of Thomas Tuchel’s team come from the defense, as Bayern are conceding way more than what we were used to seeing. Lazio will need to be careful as the wingers and the attacking line of the German giants are still one of the best around Europe, but they will have chances to score, especially in the first leg at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. 

Barcelona, on the other hand, are also living a challenging season, with coach Xavi set to leave the club at the end of June, as he already announced. The Blaugrana are currently third in La Liga, but ten points behind Real Madrid and basically out of the title race, and will probably put their efforts on the European campaign, despite a disappointing year so far. Napoli, may not be in great shape and Barcelona are the favorites, but the first game in Naples will be crucial for the Italian side since the Azzurri definitely have the players to beat this Barcelona. In general, Napoli have the better chance to go through, but they essentially need the team spirit and players like Khvicha Kvaratskhelia or Victor Osimhen to get back at the level of the 2022-23 season. Otherwise, it will be almost impossible for them. 

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