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


  1. well argued. but please don't say Inter's clash with the OM is easy: we very well remember last year's terrible leg against Schalke 04!!!

  2. Thanks Emanuele! I really can't see Inter being complacent or playing as
    ludicrously this time.