On the face of it, it might seem like Serie A has fared poorly in the Europa League this time around. Before the final group stage games, only Champions League drop-outs Roma had mathematically secured their place in the knockout stages and they were joined by Fiorentina in the Round of 32.
After a year out of Europe, Inter suffered a disastrous exit and had already been eliminated with four defeats in the first five matches. Whilst a club that won the Champions League as recently as 2010 would be expected to qualify, their managerial upheaval this term undoubtedly exacerbated the problem.
Whilst teams like Inter were certainly expected to do better, only two other teams from La Liga, Bundesliga and the Premier League – Athletic Bilbao and FC Schalke – had sealed their qualification with a round to spare.
Fiorentina were all-but-though when they travelled to Azerbaijan for the final match against Qarabag. The Viola made the 5,000-mile round trip and sealed a 2-1 victory, marking the fourth consecutive campaign in which the Tuscans had made the knockout stages of the competition.
Sassuolo were competing in Europe for the first time ever, a remarkable achievement considering their maiden Serie A victory didn’t arrive until October 2013. Despite kicking off their debut tournament with a 3-0 victory over 2012 finalists Athletic Bilbao, the Neroverdi exited with a round to spare. They were visibly unaccustomed to dealing with two competitions and an injury crisis was the consequence.
When looking at the poor Europa League showing, it’s worth noting these sides have struggled in Serie A as well. Fiorentina sit eighth, Inter 10th and Sassuolo continue to struggle in 14th. The reason for this is not difficult to spot as – without the investment secured from playing in the Champions League – the Europa League is extremely tough on squads.
Perhaps Frank de Boer would not have found himself in hot water so quickly at Inter if he only had the league to focus on, and had he not been wrestling with two entirely different squads due to Financial Fair Play rules. Sassuolo Coach Eusebio Di Francesco also admitted that his side could’ve qualified if it wasn’t for the host of injuries sustained.
The fact of the matter remains that without Champions League money, most squads at this level are simply not set up to compete in Europe.
Napoli President Aurelio De Laurentiis famously complained the Europa League was more of an inconvenience than a bonus for clubs, as it drained energy and resources with little genuine financial remuneration. This attitude is reflected in the Italian attendances and viewing figures for UEFA’s minor tournament too.
Without the ball and chain of the Europa League, Fiorentina may have been able to reach a Champions League spot and the associated financial rewards during one of the three consecutive seasons they finished fourth. Former Viola boss Vincenzo Montella is proving this to be the case at Milan, working under similar budget restraints, yet currently enjoying joint second place in the standings.
With these clubs floundering, it allows teams that are free from the shackles of the punishing schedule to flourish. Milan, Lazio and Atalanta are all doing better than expected this term, but if those sides do indeed secure a European place, they could find themselves embroiled in the same struggles once the 2017-18 campaign kicks off.
It is no surprise that over the last four seasons there have been a myriad of different clubs who have qualified for the Europa League. Fiorentina have been the only constant in this group, however this is better explained by the fact during this time they consistently missed out what they were striving for, which was the Champions League.
During this spell Udinese, Lazio, Torino, Inter, Napoli, Sampdoria and Sassuolo have joined the Viola in the qualifying positions, but no other side has consistently achieved the necessary league standing.
A Sunday-Thursday-Sunday schedule takes its toll on the squads concerned, meaning that league form suffers as a result and it is almost impossible to reach Europe in back-to-back campaigns.
Whilst both clubs are of a completely different size and stature, an early exit from Europe may prove to be a blessing for both Inter and Sassuolo, as they look to regroup and recover their seasons. Fiorentina, however, continue to be stuck on the merry-go-round.