It is not very usual to see Juventus cult hero Alessandro Del Piero fail to capitalise on a lucrative scoring opportunity. The endorser of brand—"Bianconerri"—has reduced himself in the later years to the role of a support striker, and that has consequently limited his chances to frequent the opponents’ goal. That said, the abilities of the Juve legend to invent a moment of brilliance have not been deteriorated at all and he keeps proving time and again.
Yet, the other night in the city of Poznan in Poland, when the turf at Stadion Miejski was garnished with a stratum of ice crystals following a snowstorm, Del Piero failed to hit target from a pin-point Milos Krasic cross during the dying minutes of the match.
Had the Juve skipper managed to put that one past the net, it could have potentially been a winner. The chilly wind breezing all around the park showed no mercy on the Italian visitors as an eventual 1-1 draw saw the Serie A giants end their campaign for the 2010-11 edition of the UEFA Europa League.
Following the footsteps of their much idolised compatriots, Palermo and Sampdoria too crashed out of the competition from their respective groups which leaves Napoli as the only prospective flag bearers from Serie A, should they manage a win at home on the final matchday over the Romanian outfit Steaua Bucuresti.
As the points tally reads at the end of match day five, Juventus, Sampdoria and Palermo are left with no ball in their court to qualify for the knock out phase even if they conjure up a majestic win in their last match.
DISMAL SHOW IN LATER YEARS
The performances of the Italian teams in European competitions—be it Champions League or Europa League—have not exactly been exciting lately and very interestingly or rather uninterestingly should be the proper choice of words, the Italian units appear to be unbothered over a series of lacklustre performances in Europa League.
Taking into account the ongoing edition of the competition, Palermo, Napoli and Juventus having managed the fifth, sixth and seventh spots in Serie A earlier this year, received an entry in the tournament whereas, a failure to beat Werder Bremen in the Champions League qualifier playoff, reduced Sampdoria to the very next level of Intra-continent tourney.
Juventus, being reckoned the traditional powerhouses in Europe were expected to manage an easy run through group with Manchester City being the only team that boasted of the potential to unsettle the Old Lady from Turin. The other two horses in the race—Lech Poznan from Poland and Austrian champions Red Bull Salzburg—were fairly inexperienced sides and were no match for the numbers Juve have managed at European level.
However, the story was to be unfolded in an entirely perplexing fashion, as Juventus failed to secure a single win during the five matchdays, though having managed to remain unbeaten. As things stand, a disastrous show at Turin against the Polish opponents where they allowed a three-goal lead to be neutralised, has potentially caused the two-time UEFA cup winners a place in the next round.
A better head-to-head record in the round robin, would see Lech Poznan advantage over the Bianconerri. The fellow countrymen too do not have any better tale to share. While Sampdoria were throughout topsy-turvy in their streak of games, Palermo managed to grab only one win in five fixtures. An Edinson Cavani inspired Napoli thus remains the only hope for Serie A to project at least one team going deep enough into the competition.
THE ABJECT APPROACH
A similitude in the performances of all the Italian teams this time around in the Europa League, becomes fairly apparent in the pattern of performances displayed by teams over an array of games. Ever since the UEFA started to grant more teams from a domestic league a place into the Champions League, as an immediate effect the intensity amongst the teams to play in the Europa League has diminished.
The Italian Serie A however being one of the stronger leagues in the UEFA confederation; the teams qualifying from the league are usually expected to maintain a strong presence, but in the later years, the story of the Italian show speaks otherwise. The teams invariably fail to progress through the higher stages of the competition and on a very negative note, deliver subdued and unenthusiastic performances.
During the 2008-09 season, AC Milan were the lone survivors from Italy in the round of 16 but were undone on away goals by Germany’s Werder Bremen. During the last season, Juventus fared reasonably well after being thrashed by Bayern Munich in the Champions League. Juve looked on song and had beaten Fulham 3-1 in the first leg of the quarter final played at home.
In the return leg at London, the Bianconerri built up on the lead with David Trezeguet adding to the goal tally, but in a completely unfathomable turn of events, Fulham managed to get better of Juventus defence on as many as four occasions and eventually Juventus were beaten on aggregate goals.
The current edition turned out to be another series of languid displays as all the four Serie A teams showed no intent, motivation or focus to compete at this level. An unprofessionally casual approach dealing with games caused the Azzuri outfits untimely draws and hence kept them away from a runaway qualification to advanced rounds.
While the choice of players for the fixtures and the substitutional patterns by the managers were a little perplexing, there was little the players seemed to be interested to do about. The ardour, the zeal and the desire to produce results were all missing from their body language, and that is the one very prominent reason for this disappointing campaign among other tactical and technical woes.
LACK OF MOTIVATION, EVENTUALLY FATAL
It has remained no secret that the glamour and excitement in the Europa League are nowhere near to that in the Champions League, and the UEFA seems to have done little about maintaining if not enhancing the players’ attraction for the tournament.
This compels the teams participating in the competition to focus on maintaining their top run of form in the domestic league and thus cement their position in the top bracket to feature into the Champions League for the following season.
Thus during the course of a Europa League campaign, a team like Juventus would not feature a half fit Milos Krasic in a match for the fear of aggravating his injury and endangering his participation in the upcoming league matches—a risk they would most certainly opt for, should it be a group game in Champions League.
There are all chances a team manages to fare deep enough into the tournament, possibly win it too and as a result raises the amount of fatigue among the first choice players who would not be able to translate the similar run of form in the crucial last phase of the league games.
A classic example for this is Fulham. The inspired Londoners under Roy Hodgson eliminated the teams like Juventus and Hamburg to reach the finals only to fall second to Atletico Madrid. At the end of the season, Fulham could not finish even among the top seven teams in England and were denied a chance to compete even in Europa League the following year, i.e. the ongoing one.
A similar concern is today shared by many of the mid-table teams across different leagues, who always face the dilemma in interest while being in the race for that much sought fourth spot and yet continue to fare good in Europa League.
Teams often choose to rest their key prospects for more crucial phases during the season and do not really mind if elimination in Europe knocks at their doors. While the system to derive a league’s co-efficient in the confederation relies equally on the teams’ performances in the Champions League as well as Europa League, the UEFA must bring into a set of measures for the survival of the latter.
Due to the lack of interest among the fans and the unexciting gestures in the matches by players, the UEFA were compelled to drop the idea of "Cup Winners’ Cup" a few years back and that exactly could be the case with the Europa League if nothing of greater significance is applied as a counter measure.
ITALIAN TEAMS DO HARM TO THEIR LEAGUE TOO
A series of listless performances in the current episode of the Europa League has already denied a chance of progressing to three of the Serie A teams and if worse is to follow, Napoli too may crash out. What is more harmful than the elimination from the tournament is the timing for this multiple elimination.
The Italian Serie A is already plunged into a set of disarray with so many questions crumbling over the survival of the league as one of the European giants. The matches have failed to pull an enormous crowd lately into the stadiums.
Many of the teams are facing financial troubles, and it is very important for the league during such convoluted circumstances to continue to do well on every stage it can. The disinterested and indifferent show by the likes of Juventus, Palermo and Sampdoria could well snatch the fourth spot from Serie A and Germany’s Bundes Liga may be given higher preference for the years to come.
In that case, the race for the fourth spot—something for which the teams chose to reduce their efforts in the Europa League—becomes insignificant as the spot nomore remains with the league. While the grooming of the gen-next local breed for La Nazionale has been a tormenting question for Cesare Prandelli since he has assumed the duties of the national team coach, such dim and depressing display by the teams in Europa League would only do harm to the process of reestablishment of the Italian game’s stature in the European and World football.