Friday 16 December 2011

Faith in Five

Udinese celebrate Antonio Di Natale's equalizer against Celtic
Perhaps it was a rare moment of patriotism, or even a rarer moment of foresight.  When it comes to the club level, Italian football is not normally known for either, and yet what many Italian football fans realized on Thursday, as Udinese played out the dying seconds of the draw that they needed against Celtic to enter the next phase of the Europa League, was that five Italian teams would be in European competition in the new year.  For once, Italian participants in the Europa League, an officially reinvigorated second-tier competition that already seems moribund, put in the graft without any promise of lucrative reward.

Like it or not, as I have persistently written in the past, the Europa League counts just as much as the Champions League when it comes to that well-concealed UEFA coefficient points system, a system that has pervasive consequences for how much money a league can hope to see from the Champions League.  Italy has already lost its fourth Champions League spot, which makes the top three spots in the Serie A coveted real estate.  For this year though, Napoli's searing run through Manchester City has been the apotheosis of Serie A's campaign in Europe.  Quite simply, Milan and Inter have not impressed as much, and that is even after you take into account the Rossoneri's theatrical, for all the good reasons, 3-2 loss to Barcelona.

What Lazio and Udinese have done in the Europa League is crucial work for the Italian bid, leaving Serie A in a position to amass a points total of 15 or greater this year.  Doing so, will let them steer clear of France, who are menacing in fifth spot, but now only have two representatives left in this year's competition--Marseille and Lyon in the Champions League.  Also, if Italy do want to reclaim the third spot in the rankings, then beating Germany this year could be foundational for that challenge.  The Bundesliga only have four representatives left in the competition, and when you consider Bayer Leverkusen are up against Barcelona, Italy's chances to charge ahead of Germany this year seem promising.

Currently, Italy is on 9.500 points (see table below), already about two points behind the total they managed last year.  Remember, a win in UEFA competition for Italy means 2 points (a draw means 1) divided by 7, the total number of positions that Italy is allotted (consider how important, then, it was for Milan to hold onto their 2-0 lead against Viktoria Plzen on Matchday 6, or for Inter to beat Trabzonspor on Matchday 1).

In the Europa League, Udinese have been handed a somewhat easier task of going past Greek side PAOK Saloniki in the round of thirty-two, while Lazio come up against far more daunting opposition in Atletico Madrid.  In the Champions League, the Italian contingent should feel confident.  For one, Napoli and Milan have avoided Real Madrid, and secondly, they are up against sides that they seem able to beat.  Milan will want to avenge the elimination at the hands of Arsenal in the 2007-08 campaign, and they should be optimistic of restitution with a sturdier backline, a competent, at times spectacular, frontline, and a revitalized midfield, which may have problems and some deficiencies, but is nonetheless equipped to play a containing game.  Napoli, on the other hand, will be brimming with self-belief after defeating Premiership champions-elect Manchester City this year to effectively qualify for the knockout stages; surpassing Chelsea definitely does not seem impossible.  Inter's clash with Marseille seems the easiest, and the most conducive to put more distance between Italy and France in the rankings.

With five Italian clubs still in the European pursuit, Italy joins England and Spain in the group of countries with the most representatives left in UEFA competition.  Given that Manchester United and Manchester City have dropped down into the Europe's second-tier, winning the Europa League will be much harder for Lazio and Udinese.  However, the goal should be at least the quarter-final stage for one, if not both, clubs.  As for the Champions League, a sustained run for all three clubs will emphatically put Italy back in contention, and redress some of the European heartache and frustrations of recent years.  There are certainly many structural issues--stadia ownership being chief among them--with which Italy has to contend to bolster its chances in Europe in the long run.  However, while as a brand Italian football may be a bit behind, as a quintessential football product, a result of a school and philosophy, it is still registering.

UEFA Coefficient Rankings taken from Bert Kassies's website

Thursday 1 December 2011

Serie A's Europa League Fight

The right noise...Edy Reja
Finally, at long last, Lazio coach Edy Reja said the right things moments before his side's crunch encounter with Romanian club Vaslui in the Europa League: "We will play a competitive team in Romania."  Speculation suggests that Miroslav Klose will start from the outset as will Djibril Cisse and Hernanes.  

Oh wait, did you forget? Yes, the Europa League is happening right now.  This week, the Europa League theoretically had the European limelight to itself since the Champions League, its richer, better looking, more popular cousin, was off until a reappearance next week.  And yet, earlier this week, there was scarcely any mention in the Italian media of the two matches that Udinese and Lazio had to play.  Most of the focus, perhaps somewhat justifiably, was on Napoli's game against Juventus on Tuesday.

For the future of Italian football, the Europa League is solemnly significant.  As I have written previously, it is not only that Italy have dropped behind the Bundesliga that is the concern, but also that France and Portugal are making inroads on the fourth spot in the UEFA coefficient ranking, a spot currently held by an increasingly nervous looking Serie A.  Well, at least, you would like to think the league is nervous, and not fatally complacent.

"When it comes to the Europa League, our clubs rest players," said the typical harbinger of doom and gloom, Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani, earlier this season.  "This is why we're behind Cyprus this year."

Europa League Group D standings taken from
Lest the calcio lover is anxious about a power shift from Rome, Milan, and Turin to Nicosia, Limassol, and Larnaka, we need to put things into a more ruddy context. Udinese's 0-0 draw with Rennes last night means they only have to avoid defeat against Celtic at home on December 15th to make it into the next round.  And if Lazio defeat Vaslui in Romania today, then the Biancoceleste will also qualify. 

Europa League Group I standings taken from
However, while these games do not seem monumentally difficult, it is the ability for Italian clubs to make them difficult that is unnerving.  Udinese should have come home with the three points yesterday, but Francesco Guidolin rested players like Antonio Di Natale and Giampiero Pinzi. Notwithstanding that, only the upright denied what seemed a certain goal for Antonio Floro Flores.  Guidolin could argue that it was not only he who rested players yesterday.  Harry Redknapp did too, and Tottenham duly lost at home to PAOK Saloniki.  However, the Premier League isn't fighting for its face, its identity, and its spot at the summit of the coefficient rankings, a spot that looks assured for years to come.

Yet, when Guidolin was asked whether he would stop rotating players if Udinese made it out of their group, he remained non-committal, responding with a "we will see."

As thrilling as they can be, victories like the one Napoli claimed over Manchester City in the Champions League will not solely decide where Italian football sits in a few years.  There is a fight for prominence going on, away from the glare and riches of the Champions League, and it counts.  That fight is in the Europa League--in the back-alley and by the dockside.  Serie A better be ready for it.