By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Writer
It seems a strange statistic on the face of it, but on Thursday, an Italian side will step onto the field for a Europa League quarter-final fixture for the first time when Lazio face Fenerbahce. But the fact that the Biancocelesti are calcio pioneers should not be all that surprising when looking at the trends in the bel paeseof late.
In many ways it has become trendy to disregard European football’s secondary competition, but in altogether more understandable ways it has also become a necessity to many clubs. While the bare stats show a mixed bag of results for those who have all-but opted-out of the Europa League at an early stage, there can be no doubting that clubs have struggled to juggle a successful run at the top three or four spots in Serie A and a continued slog at the ever increasing demands of the new Uefa Cup format.
Too often now, results in Europe are used as proof that a league is failing. But, on the pitch at least, Serie A is in no worse a state than any other domestic competition on the continent. If anything, the successes of Udinese in recent seasons are testament to the fact that the Italian league remains perhaps the most competitive of all.
Yet the inability of the Friulani to get over the line in two consecutive Champions League play-offs, added to a similar failure for Sampdoria the year before, have provided fuel for those wishing to set fire to the reputation of Serie A. The achievements of provincial clubs have become the stick with which to beat them the second their naivety at the top level has been exposed.
|TRAVEL SICKNESS | How Europa League runs have affected Italians' league form
||PRE-ELIMINATION POSITION||LEAGUE FINISH|
|2009-10||Roma||Round of 32||3rd||2nd - CL|
|2009-10||Lazio||3rd in group||16th||12th|
|2009-10||Genoa||3rd in group||10th||9th|
|2009-10||Juventus**||Round of 16||5th||7th|
|2010-11||Sampdoria||3rd in group||8th||18th - relegated|
|2010-11||Palermo||3rd in group||5th||8th|
|2010-11||Napoli||Round of 32||2nd||3rd - CL|
|2010-11||Juventus||3rd in group||4th||7th|
|2011-12||Udinese||Round of 16||5th||3rd - CL|
|2011-12||Lazio||Round of 32||4th||4th - EL|
|2012-13||Udinese||4th in group||9th||9th*|
|2012-13||Napoli||Round of 32||2nd||2nd - CL*|
||Round of 16||5th||6th*|
** Juventus only entered at the Round of 32 stage after Champions League elimination
But that very opportunity to get into the top three is clearly there for such clubs, and so when facing the poser of how to negotiate a Europa League campaign alongside the carrot of another crack at the Champions League, it is obvious that any club worth their salt will prioritise their league fixtures.
Where this all falls down as a system is Uefa’s coefficient rankings. Its attempt to bolster the strength of the Europa League is at odds with the approach taken by Italy’s clubs, helping to reduce the possibility of such clubs making the Champions League unless the peninsula’s sides begin to achieve more at Europa League level and above.
While Bayern Munich’s 2-0 win over Juventus on Tuesday took Germany beyond Italy in terms of relevant coefficient points gained in the Champions League (even if Germany were far behind Italy when they took Serie A's fourth Champions League spot from 2012), it has been the comparative achievements of the Bundesliga’s clubs on Thursdays which has seen Italy fall so far behind in the coefficient rankings. It has now reached the extent whereby massive improvements need to be made over a period of perhaps more than two years if Italy is to win back the fourth Champions League spot that was lost to Germany 12 months ago.
Lazio could represent the first step towards that, but more likely they will be used as an example of a team who have got their priorities wrong. Just a couple of months ago, they were in a great position to qualify for the third Champions League spot, but now they find themselves struggling to even reach the Europa League through Serie A.
|UNEVEN SPREAD | How coefficient points have been won since 2009
Still, Lazio and Inter represent that rare beast: a Europa League outfit who have real hopes of being in the Champions League picture for years to come. For the most part, those who go into the continent’s secondary competition are fighting each week against the clubs who boast squads deeper and stronger than their own. Should it really fall on them to gain coefficient points which could eventually put those same sides even further out of reach? And are they even capable of doing it if they try?
Few squads can really cope with the demands of maintaining lofty goals at home as well as a season-long interest abroad. As the season wears on, bumps and bruises become more frequent and lethargy sets in, leaving squads looking thinner on the ground than in the early part of the campaign when minnows from Macedonia, Slovenia etc. were being swept aside by second-string sides. Even Inter, who have a recent history of making the latter stages of the Champions League, have reached the point where one or two injuries soon shot a hole in their squad and they were dispatched by Tottenham.
The negatives still outweigh the positives for many onlookers, meaning Lazio’s attempt to become only the third Serie A side in four years to follow a Europa League campaign with a Champions League group stage qualification looks a forlorn one. A third-place finish aside, nothing short of a triumphant night in Amsterdam come May is likely to change the status quo in terms of Italy’s attitude to Europe’s ugly duckling tournament.