Tevez treble hauls Old Lady back to her feet after Champions League exit
It was a week where Italian football slipped further down the rankings after its worst-ever performance in the Champions League group stage.
Never in the history of the competition has Serie A had only one representative in the knockout round. England and Germany each saw all four of their teams qualify, while Spain had three in the pot for Monday’s last 16 draw.
Italy's remaining side, however, are probably playing the poorest football in Europe. With just one away win in the group stage, against bottom side Celtic, seven-time winners AC Milan only squeezed through by hanging on at home for over an hour against Ajax, having been reduced to 10 men when Riccardo Montolivo received a straight red card for a foul on Cristian Poulsen (something of a hate figure in Italy after previous run-ins with Francesco Totti, Kakà and Gennaro Gattuso).
Ajax coach Frank de Boer accused the Rossoneri of playing “anti-football” or, more to the point, not playing at all by time-wasting at every opportunity. But it could have also been described as a fine rearguard performance in Italian teams' best traditions, after Massimiliano Allegri’s side scraped through to again fly the flag for a beleaguered Serie A. They will need more than stern resistance in February, however, where Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid juggernaut await.
Juventus, meanwhile, were undone by a combination of weather and their own profligacy. Antonio Conte’s side only needed a point at Galatasaray but an icy snow blast saw Tuesday night's first attempt at playing postponed until the following day. When the teams did gather again, Juve were left fuming over perceived skullduggery from the Turkish hosts.
The Italian press called it a dirty tricks campaign, after a tractor clearing snow was deployed only over the half where Juve were attacking in the second half. Photos showed one side of the pitch to be completely ploughed, while the area that the visitors were defending was left in near-pristine condition.
Conte had already expressed his displeasure with the pitch at half time, even speaking English to try and get his protests across. But ultimately Juve could have no real excuses after dropping two valuable points against the Turkish side in Turin, and were still only eight minutes away from qualifying before Wesley Sneijder's dramatic late winner.
If fortune had favoured Milan and not Juventus, then Napoli were left wondering what else they could have done to make it through after finishing level with Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund on 12 points, only to be denied by their inferior head-to-head record. One more goal in their 2-0 win over the Gunners would have seen them through, but at least Rafa Benitez’s side could go out with their heads held high.
Juventus and Napoli will now join Fiorentina and Lazio in the Europa League. Italian clubs have a rich history in the competition's previous incarnation as the UEFA Cup, particularly in the 1990s when Serie A clubs lifted the trophy with regularity: Juventus and Parma (both twice) and Inter (three times). But The Old Lady have an added incentive to reach this season's final, with it being played at their own Juventus Stadium.
Conte's men will face another Turkish outfit, Trabzonspor, in the knockout stage, while Napoli prepare for battle against Michael Laudrup's Swansea. Lazio were pitted against Bulgarian side Ludogorets, with Fiorentina drawn to play Denmark's Esbjerg.
Having been bogged down in Istanbul, league leaders Juventus could ill afford to come unstuck on the domestic front, despite holding a healthy advantage at the top. Since the blackout at Fiorentina on October 20 where they let a 2-1 lead slip to lose 4-2, Juventus were on a seven-game winning streak without conceding in the league ahead of Sunday's visit of Sassuolo, put back from Saturday evening after the extended stay in Turkey.
In truth, though, this one was never going to cause any great discomfort. Their Champions League disappointment was taken out on the strugglers as Carlos Tevez scored a hat-trick and set up Federico Peluso in a 4-0 rout.
The former Manchester City man is beginning to take over the mantle of team leader from Arturo Vidal. Like the Chilean, El Apache hunts down the ball and always wants to be involved in the action, be it in the opposition half or back covering when the opposition have possession. He was the best performer in Istanbul, and this was another game where his insatiable work ethic made him a stand-out performer.
It wasn't as if Sassuolo were ever expected to pose a real threat, though, meaning Gigi Buffon's uneventful evening took his shut-out time to 730 minutes, and keeps him on target to overtake former Milan No.1 Sebastian Rossi’s record of 929 minutes.
Juve may have been frozen out in Europe but the forecast on the home front continues to look bright.