Back in 2009-10, Fiorentina successfully saw off Sporting Clube de Portugal on away goals to reach the Champions League group stage. It completed a Treble of sorts. For three seasons running, Italian clubs had managed to bring all four of their prized co-efficient teams to the last 32. Coupled alongside Lazio in 2007 and Juventus in 2008, Italian football was reaching a new peak of quality. It may not have been 1990s Serie A, but it was not half bad.
That very same 2010 when La Viola made it through the play-offs, they reached the Round of 16, but it was league champions Inter who would topple Bayern Munich and take the crown of Europe back to Italy.
Yet, it was the beginning of the decline. The Nerazzurri triumph would be the last time that an Italian team has won the Champions League. Sampdoria would be ousted by Werder Bremen in their play-offs the following season, whilst Milan, Inter and Roma would not make it beyond the quarter-finals.
Since then, Italy has lost their grip on the play-offs, lost their grip on the Champions League and disastrously lost their grip on a fourth qualifying spot.
Sampdoria was the catalyst. The Blucerchiati had lost 3-1 at the Weserstadion in Bremen, but a Giampaolo Pazzini away goal in the 90th minute gave them hope. A 2-0 result would have done, and in the 85th minute they went 3-0 up in the second leg. Cue a 93rd minute cracker from Markus Rosenberg to send the game to extra-time, and Claudio Pizarro did the rest to see the Germans through.
Following on from that, Udinese lost to both Arsenal and Braga, whilst Milan eased through against PSV in 2013. The most recently defeated include Napoli, Lazio and Roma: Athletic Bilbao, Bayer Leverkusen and FC Porto the tormentors in this situation.
The disappointment for Italians in the play-offs can’t simply be down to not turning up on the day. Out of all those teams that beat the Italians since Sampdoria lost to Werder Bremen, just two of the six clubs managed to get out of the Group Stage. The two teams being Arsenal and Porto, but even then, the Round of 16 was the best they could muster.
It is not as though these Serie A clubs have a divine right to qualify. Those in question had their chance and were deservedly beaten against teams that cannot even get out of the group stage. The mixture of clubs also poses a tough issue of pin-pointing an argument as to why Italian teams falter in the play-offs. Four countries spread over the six successful clubs suggests no real correlation.
All of these leagues – Bundesliga, La Liga, Primeira Liga, Premier League – start a couple of weeks earlier than Serie A and this has often been pointed to as the decisive factor. Coaches in these clashes constantly complain at facing opponents who are further ahead in terms of match fitness and tournament readiness. Can that be enough to explain such a poor recent record, though?
The argument then could be as simple as Italian sides simply are not as good as people may think they are these days. Much like teams in the Premier League – supposedly better than other nation’s sides to some areas of the media – end up losing rather dramatically to an apparent unknown entity.
Italy’s second-wind of dominance under noughties Milan and then briefly Jose Mourinho’s Inter closed out in 2011. Recently, Juventus have been the obvious high-point, the goal for all other 19 league clubs to aspire to. But even then, two Champions League Final defeats do not spell success for a club of the Bianconeri’s stature. Their aim is to win, whilst for others it is to get through the play-offs. Neither have been successful.
The failure of progress by Italian clubs in the play-offs is no different from the failure in the knock-out rounds. There is a much bigger reason to losing out in the play-offs than simply not turning up for 180 minutes, and that is Serie A is not the league it was anymore. It is not 1990. It is not 2010. It is 2017, and Serie A needs resurgence. Serie A needs Milan and Inter to compete again – fortunately very probable this season - and for Napoli to defeat OGC Nice and begin this movement.
In 2018, we will see four qualification places for the Champions League back in Italy, so the change must be fast. The change must be now.
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