By Mark Doyle
When Francesco Guidolin emerged from a distraught Udinese dressing room to face the media after his side’s Champions League play-off defeat by Braga last autumn, he looked and sounded like a broken man. “I am immensely sorry for me, for the players and for the fans,” the Venetian quivered, trying valiantly to hold back the tears. It might therefore sound harsh, but there were those who felt that the Italian game was also owed an apology.
Nobody wanted to say that at the time, of course, out of respect for one of the most likeable coaches in the country. However, while there was an immediate outpouring of sympathy for Guidolin and his troops, that gradually gave way to an undeniable sense of frustration among Italy’s footballing fraternity.
Udinese had secured their play-off place by finishing third in Serie A the season before; nobody was, or is, disputing that they warranted their shot at the big time. However, the Zebrette’s shootout failure against Braga merely served to strengthen the suspicion that a Champions League play-off place is wasted on a club of such limited resources. For the second season in a row, Udinese had placed above sides of far greater wealth and prestige to earn a crack at the game's premier club competition. Yet for the second successive campaign they had fallen at the first - and final - hurdle, having once again spent the summer months cashing in on their most valuable assets.
Bowing out against Arsenal the year before had been excusable, but falling to Braga was unforgivable, particularly in light of how vitally important European success has become for Italy. Having lost its fourth qualification berth to Germany on account of its rapidly decreasing Uefa coefficient, Serie A is now in danger of falling behind Ligue 1 and the Primeira Liga in the pecking order.
So, while Udinese’s domestic exploits over the past two years have been deservedly lauded up and down the peninsula, their inability to make the group stages has prompted many to wonder if the Zebrette's success was actually a negative for the Italian game.
Udinese, of course, are only obliged to look after their own interests, and, as a small provincial club, they must balance the books. However, for those who would like to see Italy reclaim its place among Europe’s elite, surely it is only natural that they are now asking themselves if it would be preferable for certain sides to finish ahead of others?
Looking at the current Serie A standings, it seems safe to assume that Juventus and Napoli will claim Italy’s two automatic qualification places for next season. However, there are just three points separating AC Milan in third and Fiorentina in sixth, with Inter and Lazio sandwiched in between.
A neutral could easily argue that all of those concerned are worthy of qualification. Fiorentina would undoubtedly be the romantic choice, in light of the enthralling renaissance the Dalle Valle brothers are facilitating in Florence. Then again, the 37-year-old Andrea Stramaccioni leading Inter back into the Champions League would also make for a wonderful story. Lazio, meanwhile, would surely get the sympathy vote, having been pipped to a play-off place by Udinese in each of the past two seasons. And then there is Milan ...
There would be nothing particularly exciting about the Rossoneri holding onto third, but then, that is the point. Milan are near perennial qualifiers. Their European pedigree is unrivalled within Italy, having won the tournament seven times in total, and competing against the continent’s finest undoubtedly brings the best out of them, as so thrillingly underlined by their recent win over Barcelona. For that reason, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Italy would be best served by Milan finishing third.
Admittedly, Inter also have the history and the resources, but do they currently have the players? The Nerazzurri squad, as was so painfully underlined at White Hart Lane last night, is in dire need of an overhaul and president Massimo Moratti is reportedly planning a revolution that may even result in Stramaccioni being replaced by Walter Mazzarri. In such circumstances, it is entirely possible that they could get caught cold in the qualifiers. Fiorentina's redevelopment is more advanced but one wonders if they are quite ready for the Champions League. The same goes for Lazio, who, unlike the Viola, do not even have the requisite finance for a revamp.
Milan have their own financial concerns, but then they are not exactly in need of a makeover. They already have the makings of a fine, young side. They also have momentum. As Lazio coach Vladimir Petkovic stated after his side’s league defeat at San Siro last weekend, "Milan are the team to beat" for third place. For Italy's sake, they are also the team to back.