Champions League Disaster Can Be a Turning Point for Italian Football

Colin O'Brien@@ColliOBrienContributor IDecember 12, 2013

BOLOGNA, ITALY - DECEMBER 06:  Head coach Juventus Antonio Conte looks on during the Serie A match between Bologna FC and Juventus at Stadio Renato Dall'Ara on December 6, 2013 in Bologna, Italy.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Claudio Villa/Getty Images

In August, Juventus were being talked about in not-so-hushed tones as outside contenders. Rafa Benitez' Napoli were a great unknown, light on experience but heavy on talent. Milan, a club with seven titles to their name and Mario Balotelli up front, weren't to be discounted either. 

It's now December, and only Max Allegri's Rossoneri remain. The country with more Champions League final appearances than any other—Italy has 26 to Spain's 22—is now represented solely by a side that currently sits ninth in the league, with only one win from their last seven games. 

It's not exactly a ringing endorsement of the state of Italian football. Juve's failure to qualify has come as a shock. There was a feeling not only here in Italy but across the continent that after learning some hard lessons at the hands of last season's eventual winners, Bayern Munich, in the quarter finals, Antonio Conte and the Old Lady were eager and able to prove they'd improved. Instead, they were unceremoniously dumped out at the earliest stage possible by the unfancied Galatasaray and Roberto Mancini, a manager generally considered to be out of his depth at the continental level. 

Napoli's Group F was a joke. Why—and how—the tournament's structure needs an overhaul is a discussion for another day, but no group should end up with three teams on 12 points and with a capable side like Olympique de Marseille wallowing shamefully at the bottom without a point to show for themselves. 

The French failed to put up much of a fight against three of Europe's most entertaining and dangerous sides, but even a cursory glance at some of the other groups is enough to suggest that they might have had a kinder draw.

Ignoring the fact that sides from the same country can't meet so early on, several of the teams who actually qualified for the knock-out stages—Olympiacos, FC Zenit, Shalke, Milan and Bayer Leverkusen come to mind—would likely have fared little better in a group against Dortmund, Arsenal and Napoli. 

In the end, Benitez and Napoli paid the ultimate price for being too reactionary and conservative in the first half of their final match with Arsenal. It's an approach that might suit the Spaniard, but it certainly doesn't suit the strengths of his current team. The Partenopei are at their best when they're exploiting space farther up the field. Whenever they did, they had the Gunners on the ropes, particularly after Lorenzo Insigne came on. 

Their second goal, though too little, too late, showed how dangerous Napoli can be. Insigne's deft flick inside from out left found Jose Callejon, who mimicked the young Neapolitan's subtle delivery with a cheeky lobbed shot to leave Wojciech Szczesny scrambling. 

Along with Gonzalo Higuain's strike earlier—when the Argentine created and converted a classic centre-forward's goal—it proved that Napoli are the complete package in the final third, capable of scoring from almost any situation. All they need is the slightest of chances. And had they been given the chance, they would surely have lit up the later stages. 

Juventus, for their part, would surely have grown into the competition. Such is the strength and depth of their squad that questions must now be asked in Turin.

Their European form has been as lacklustre as their league form has been impressive, and though nobody will be calling for Conte's head, the Bianconeri were on the back foot in the UCL since the opening draw with minnows Kobenhavn.

The 2-2 draw with the Turks at home was another golden opportunity missed. In the two games against Real Madrid, it ended 4-3 in the Spaniards' favour, but it could easily have gone Juve's way.

In fact, at times they looked more likely to beat Ancelotti's side then they did Galatasaray or Kobenhavn, and that in itself is a problem. It's all well and good to be capable of grand performances on the big nights, but you'll get a lot farther by winning all the smaller games comfortably. 

Napoli, Juventus and Serie A will all pay dearly for their exits. The clubs lose substantial revenue, and while talk of the league's troubles are often blown out of proportion, there's no doubting that its two strongest teams failing to progress shows the competition in a poor light. 

It doesn't help, either, that Italian teams have traditionally looked down upon the Europa League. Sides like Juventus or the Milan clubs might have a case for that air of superiority, but the fact that the sentiment would be echoed at a club like Udinese, who have nothing more than a Serie C title and a UEFA Intertoto Cup to show for their 117-year history, borders on the comic. 

It was that communal attitude—rather than the more popularly touted "decline" in quality—that cost Serie A its fourth Champions League birth, because while teams from the peninsula fielded second-string XIs in Europe's second-string tournament, other nations like Germany took it seriously, enjoyed success and took home the UEFA coefficient points.

The Europa League involves too many games, puts a considerable strain on smaller squads, and lacks the financial punch of the UCL. It's understandable that such a burden might seem unattractive to a chairman and his manager, even if it's a sad indictment of the game that such things influence decision-making more than the promise of a continental trophy. 

Juve and Napoli can afford a different approach. It's true that both squads have more than enough quality to think that they can compete against the game's best. But then, so did Chelsea last year, and Atletico Madrid the year before that. This season, Tottenham Hotspur could make a similar claim.

If the two fallen Serie A sides take the competition seriously, it will be a turning point for Serie A. Fiorentina are currently top of their Europa League group with a game to play against second-placed Dnipro. They'll progress whatever the result, and can add their considerable weight to a serious Italian push in the competition. 

The tournament's final is at the Juventus Stadium, the ideal venue for an Italian success and an extra motivation for the Bianconeri, who would surely like to lift a European trophy in front of a home crowd—even if it's not the one they ultimately want. 

All three Italian sides have the squad depth and the quality to go the distance, and by choosing to do so they could not only build more continental experience ahead of next season's UCL but also help improve the league's coefficient, which is all their interests. 

It will be tempting to focus on the league, but such a move would be a cop-out. Perhaps Vincenzo Montella could struggle with the squad they've got, but both Conte and Benitez will have been planning for a sustained campaign on more than one front. If the weaker opposition they'll now face in Europe has them worried about their domestic chances, then they obviously are someway short of where they want to be. 

It's time Serie A took the Europa League seriously. Napoli were unlucky with the group they were given, but this is a chance for them to prove that they've got serious continental credentials. And their only success since the days of Maradona was the 2011–12 Coppa Italia, so this is also an opportunity to build a winning mentality in what is an excellent squad. 

Conte has questions to answer, and a push for the Europa title will help him answer them. His side should have done a lot better in this Champions League, and the former midfielder can ill-afford to make the same mistakes next time around. Turin expects, and he needs to mould this team into a continental heavyweight as soon as possible. A win at home next May will prove that they can get off the ropes and go toe-to-toe with the best. Otherwise, Serie A will have to get comfortable on continental football's undercard. 

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