Champions League Analysis: Mark O'Haire rates the Serie A challenge

Gian Piero Gasperini - Atalanta
Atalanta possess the quality to be considered serious Champions League challengers

It's 11 years since a Serie A side ruled Europe's roost but the Italian challenge commands plenty of respect this season, says football betting expert Mark O'Haire

"Turning spectacles into results, and out-playing the Italian elite regularly with a quick passing and pressing 3-4-1-2 system, Gasperini’s troops have the potential to oust even the mightiest of challengers and command ultimate respect"

Juventus - Old Lady in transition and best left alone

Domestically, Juventus are chasing an unprecedented 10th successive Scudetto but the team from Turin have privately been obsessing over Champions League honours since their last taste of continental glory in 1996.

The Old Lady have failed in five finals over the following 24 years and the Serie A champions are likely to fall short again in 2021.

Fixated over brand recognition and on-field aesthetics, the Bianconeri axed the reliable Max Allegri in favour of a champagne football approach under Maurizio Sarri. When the expected entertainment failed to materialise and Juve limped out of European competition at the hands of Lyon, a complete rethink was required but few foresaw what was coming.

The very familiar face of Andrea Pirlo was parachuted into his first coaching role and tasked with a Turin revolution. The Italian legend has axed a collection of old-timers and attempted to revamp the Old Lady's front line, and should be capable of guiding the group through a passable pool alongside fading force Barcelona, Dynamo Kiev and Ferencvaros.

All eyes will be on the first-ever group-stage showdown between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi but with both teams in transition, the Bianconeri will need to be aware of the danger of resurgent Dynamo under veteran Mircea Lucescu, although Hungarian champions Ferencvaros, the lowest-ranked side left in the competition, should offer little resistance.

Juventus are joint-fifth favourites at 14/115.00 to go the distance but there's little evidence to suggest the Italian giants are capable of going further than previous flops and failures in the Champions League knockout phase. The Old Lady are best left alone, for now.

Inter Milan - Conte's charges can make a statement

Internazionale's firm focus will be on dethroning Juventus domestically, although the Nerazzurri have a penchant for European success. Antonio Conte's side may have fallen short in the Europa League final in August, as well as during the Serie A title race, but the Milan men were delighted with the progress made under the former Azzurri head coach.

Second place in Serie A and a continental final displayed the club's marked improvement under Conte and the ambitious boss demanded new recruits to take the team to the next level. His wish for steel and experience has been granted by the arrivals of Aleksandar Kolarov and Arturo Vidal, whilst the energetic Achraf Hakimi is already making a major impact at San Siro.

Inter's best business was arguably keeping hold of dynamic duo Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku in attack. The pair have blossomed as a partnership, combiningg to score 61 goals in 106 fixtures across all competitions since Conte arrived and the duo, supplied by the likes of Nico Barella, Stefano Sensi and Ivan Perisic, should have plenty of opportunities to make their mark.

First place in Group B won't be easy with relentless winners Real Madrid taking top seeds but the Nerazzurri will be confident of overcoming Shakhtar after smashing the Ukrainians 5-0 as recently as August. Monchengladbach could conceivably create problems with their modern high-pressing system but Inter boast enough ability to negotiate a tricky pool.

Inter appear too big at 35/136.00 on first glance, although punters should be aware of the Milan men's main focus in 2020/21, and that's regaining domestic dominance. Whether Conte can conquer on both fronts is questionable.

Atalanta - Bergamo boys a back-to-trade option

Every neutral is already expecting huge entertainment from Group D where Atalanta are housed alongside Liverpool, Ajax and Midtjylland. The Premier League champions are firm favourites to progress and Serie A's representative look very-well placed to follow the Reds through to the Last 16, and quite possibly beyond.

With Ajax's squad pilfered over the past two years and Danish champions Midtjylland only qualifying via a remarkable late comeback in their play-off against Slavia Prague, Atalanta are primed to again make a major mark on Europe's premier club competition.

An exhausted La Dea almost eliminated eventual finalists PSG at the quarter-final stage last term and avuncular Gian Piero Gasperini's loveable group have kept the bulk of their enterprising squad together. The departure of full-back Timothy Castagne is Atalanta's only major loss with talisman and playmaker extraordinaire Alejandro Gomez agreeing to stay on.

Hands down Serie A's most watchable side, the Bergamo boys do pack a punch alongside their artful adventures. Turning spectacles into results, and out-playing the Italian elite regularly with a quick passing and pressing 3-4-1-2 system, Gasperini's troops have the potential to oust even the mightiest of challengers and command ultimate respect.

Punters are already wise to the prospects of Atalanta - the Italians are no bigger than 8/151.55 To Qualify - but a smarter play could be to support La Dea as a back-to-trade option at 33/134.00 in the Outright market. The provincial club possess the quality to be considered as a quarter-finalist at the very least, a position that would see this price crumble come March.

Lazio - Biancocelesti back in the big time

Lazio enter the new season off the back of a record-breaking 2019/10, which included the Biancocelesti qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in over a decade. The Romans at one point churned out 12 successive victories, enjoyed a 21-match unbeaten streak and saw star striker Ciro Immobile win the Capocannoniere with a huge 36 goals.

However, Simeone Inzaghi's side faltered after lockdown. Sitting in second, Lazio trailed Juventus by a solitary point before the enforced break , only to conclude the campaign in fourth, five points shy of the title. A mixture of injuries to key players, in addition to the club's poor fitness levels, was blamed for the Biancocelesti's meltdown.

The club have managed to keep hold of their major players and added sensibly to the squad - the major question to be answered though surrounds Lazio's ability to sustain their unexpected success once more. Being handed arguably one of the softest groups has raised expectations, though the Eternal City outfit were worryingly inept in Europe last term.

Dortmund will be expected to take top honours, however Lazio will hope to prey on the Germans' fragility. Elsewhere, top seeds Zenit St Petersburg boast goal-getting pair Artem Dzyuba and Sardar Azmoun and won't be easy to overturn in Russia, while Belgian champions Club Brugge make up the quartet as Group F outsiders.

Lazio are 119/1120.00 long shots/a> to go the distance and have the capability to bloody the nose of a few continental big-hitters. But whether the Biancocelesti can consistently perform across domestic and European matters remains questionable and there's little appeal in the markets to support or oppose the Romans right now.

Mark's 2020/21 Profit/Loss

Staked: 12.00 pts
Returned: 11.88 pts
P/L: -0.12 pts

UEFA Champions League: UEFA Champions League (Winner 2020/2021)

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