Last season Juventus won the Scudetto unbeaten and not even the most fervent fan can deny their absence from the European stage had something to do with that. I am not taking anything away from Antonio Conte’s achievements when I say it undoubtedly helps to have only one game to focus on per week, a whole seven days to train, study and prepare for a single opponent. Playing in Europe brings prestige, success and a great deal of money, but it takes away an awful lot from a team too.
Conte demands “a little more respect for a club that is taking Italy forward in Europe,” but there is only so much that can be done in a packed fixture list. Teams all over the continent play three games in seven days and do not complain. What should Napoli say, after playing in the Europa League on Thursday evening and again on Sunday afternoon?
I will say that Serie A makes it considerably more difficult to balance the competitions than other top Divisions around Europe. All you have to do is look at the standings. Barcelona are 15 points clear at the top of La Liga. Manchester United can boast a 12-point gap from their closest rivals. Bayern Munich sit on a 15-point cushion and Paris Saint-Germain are five points clear with a game in hand. The strength in depth in Serie A is proving to be a real problem for our co-efficient, as handling the two tournaments simultaneously becomes extremely difficult.
Napoli are the perfect example, for last season they chose to play their best team in the Champions League and emerged from the Group of Death with flying colours, but the price they had to pay was not qualifying for the tournament again. Wary of repeating that slide down the standings, Walter Mazzarri and his men try to muddle along in the Europa League as best they can, rotating the squad and taking long tea breaks during the game. The upshot of that is a 3-0 home defeat to Viktoria Plzen, but a genuine Scudetto challenge too. Just look at Udinese, who seemed to greet their Europa League exit with a sigh of blessed relief and now look a completely different team.
The only team in recent memory to have united Serie A and Champions League success was Inter in 2010, but they are still trying to recover from that strain to this day. Milan have won the European Cup seven times, but only once – in 1993-94 – did they pair that with the Scudetto. The Double has been achieved 23 times by 15 different clubs, but only three of those were Italian (the other being Inter in 1965).
Yes, Serie A makes it tougher to remain competitive in Europe, but while the Division continues to have 20 teams and the fixture list stays so stupidly packed, there’s not much we can do about it. As Vladimir Petkovic said: “We wanted the bicycle, so now let’s get pedalling.”