The UEFA Champions League revs back up this week and Italian fans will be watching Juventus and AC Milan with interest. The only two teams from the Serie A to reach the tournament proper this season, it is vital that the two sides advance to the next round of the competition.
The reason that these Round of 16 ties are so important for the Italians? UEFA coefficient.
Two years ago Germany's Bundesliga passed the Serie A in UEFA's coefficient ranking, dropping them out of the top 3 and depriving them of a precious fourth spot in the Champions League. It was the culmination of the decline of the Italian league as a result of the 2006 calciopoli match-fixing scandal that saw Juventus relegated and both the bianconeri and Fiorentina expelled from the 2006-07 Champions League.
Milan and Inter have won the Champions League since the scandal, but overall the performance of Italian clubs on both European levels has been lackluster, and the Germans eventually overtook them.
Before continuing, a word about the UEFA coefficient rankings and how they're calculated. Each team involved in European competition gains points for results in the Champions League and Europa League. Two points are awarded for a win, one for a draw (shootouts count as draws), with points halved for qualifying and playoff rounds. Additionally, teams get a bonus point for reaching the Round of 16, quarterfinal, semifinal, and final in the UCL and the quarters, semis, and final of the Europa League. Four more bonus points are awarded for reaching the group stage and the knockout stage of the Champions League.
The total points garnered by a given league's teams are divided by the number of teams it has competing (example: England has seven teams playing in Europe, the total number of points accumulated by English teams is divided by seven) to get that country's coefficient score for the year. That score is then added to that of the previous four seasons to determine a country's overall coefficient.
The Italians aren't going to catch the Germans this year—all seven of the Bundesliga teams in European competitions are still alive and the Bundesliga is 15 points ahead of Serie A—but should the five remaining Italian falter this season, it is entirely possible that they will fall even further down the rankings.
Italy only leads France and Portugal by three and four points, respectively. Both countries have fewer teams remaining in competition than the Italians (France three, Portugal two), and both trail the Italians in this season's coefficient to date, so it's unlikely that the countries would overtake Italy this season.
That being said, a good result this year is vital for the future. Next season is the last year that Inter's Champions League title will count towards the rankings. If Inter had not won that competition, Italy very well could be in sixth place in the rankings rather than fourth.
If the Italians are to put distance between themselves and their pursuers—and close on the Germans and regain that fourth Champions League place—it is vital for Juve and Milan to lay a foundation to build on for future seasons.
Why is it so imperative for these teams to advance in the Champions League? The answer is simple: they can't count on help from the teams in Europe's second tier. Italian clubs are notorious for treating the Europa League as a set of glorified friendlies, often fielding squads full of reserves and youth players. As a result, Italian teams are routinely knocked out of the tournament in early stages.
This year Udinese crashed out of the tournament, finishing last in a group featuring Liverpool, Anzhi Makhachkala and Young Boys. That result can likely be counted towards the team's habit of selling off its best players (sans Antonio Di Natale) every year catching up to them and not lack of effort. Of the other three teams that have advanced in the competition—Lazio, Inter, and Napoli—only the first won its group, even though all three teams drew very winnable groups.
Making matters worse is that Inter and Lazio both received tough draws against Cluj and Borussia Monchengladbach, so there is no guarantee that Italy's contingent in the Europa League will exit the Round of 32 intact. A year ago only two Italian teams made the group stage of the competition and none made it past the Round of 16—missing out on valuable bonus points.
With an uncertain situation in the Europa League, Italy will be relying on its two Champions League representatives to add some muscle to its coefficient. The road will not be an easy one. While Juventus received the kindest of draws against Celtic, Milan will have to achieve nothing less than a miracle in order to oust Barcelona from the competition.
If the Serie A is going to continue on the comeback trail that it has forged for itself in the wake of calciopoli, the next major step is improving its coefficient and regaining the all-important fourth Champions League spot. In order to be able to do that, Italy needs its UCL representatives to step up and get themselves into the next round of the competition. If that happens, Serie A, like the Italian national team, will be well on the road to its ultimate redemption.