Ahead of tonight's decisive fixtures, Scott Fleming argues that Italian clubs have to start taking the Europa League seriously
It is time for Italian clubs to start pulling their weight in the Europa League. I say this not because of UEFA co-efficient points, or how many Champions League qualifying berths Serie A will or won't have in the near future, or anything of that nature. I say it because quite simply they could, and should, be doing much better.
Going into tonight's fourth round of group stage fixtures only one of Italy's four representatives is in a position to qualify, Napoli, who have drawn all three matches so far and lead Utrecht only by virtue of goals scored. Juventus and Palermo also have just three points to their name whilst Sampdoria have four, the key point being that all three lie third in their groups at this decisive stage, on course for elimination, or should I say humiliation?
You might say who cares? The Europa League, even in its old guise as the UEFA Cup, has always been decried as insignificant and inferior to the Champions League. However, the fact remains that Juve, Samp et al are putting their reputations on the line, and when you're beaten handsomely by a smaller club with less history, less talent but more pride, you can't just say who cares.
In all seriousness, what would it say if none of the Italian sides qualified? If Juve can't get the better of Red Bull Salzburg and Lech Poznan? If Utrecht and Steaua Bucharest trump Napoli? If Palermo can't outfight Sparta Prague and Lausanne – a Swiss second Division team!
All four have treated the competition as an excuse to rest players and rotate squads, displaying disdain for their opponents and the competition itself. Perhaps you can excuse Juve for prioritising Serie A since they have a Scudetto to fight for. But Napoli, Palermo and Samp?
In all likelihood come the business end of this season they'll be fighting tooth and nail for...yep, a Europa League spot. Ironic. So why not make the most of it while they're there? All three clubs have spent time in Serie B not so long ago, they should relish any kind of European football.
Every one of Serie A's representatives is capable of winning this competition, or at least reaching the latter stages. For them to fall at the first hurdle would be absurd, but it may well happen.
It doesn't have to be that way though, and it's not too late. Tonight, Juve host Salzburg, Samp host Metalist, while Napoli and Palermo make daunting trips to Liverpool and Moscow respectively. I live in hope.