Serie A is Its Own Worst Enemy for Champions League
In recent years, talk about the downfall of Serie A has been common.
The measuring stick has been poor results in the UEFA Champions League and Europa League, the latter of which seems to more of a burden than anything else for Serie A clubs. It has caused Serie A to lose a spot in the Champions League beginning in 2012-13. That spot will go to the German Bundesliga.
A chance to grab back that spot doesn’t look strong. Next season, two surprise teams from Italy will be in the Champions League as Napoli has secured third place and the fourth place spot will either go to Udinese or Lazio, which will start from the qualifying rounds of the Champions League.
The reality is that Serie A is solid across the board and no team is a sure bet for the Champions League. Not once over the last six years has Serie A placed its elite four clubs of Internazionale, AC Milan, Juventus and AS Roma in the Champions League all together.
By contrast, the English Premier League has only recently begun to see a slight change of the guard.
Prior to this season, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool finished as the top four squads in four of the previous six seasons, with Tottenham’s fourth-place finish in 2009-10 and Everton’s fourth-place finish in 2004-05 being the only differences.
It was just a season ago that Udinese finished in 15th place in Serie A and actually did nothing to upgrade its team in the offseason. In fact, it actually sold several of its top players and wouldn’t even be in the Champions League discussion if star forward Antonio Di Natale hadn’t rejected a proposed transfer to Juventus.
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Certainly much of the credit of Udinese’s success belongs to coach Francesco Guidolin.
Guidolin’s second stint with the club almost ended before it ever got off the ground.
Udinese looked destined for major trouble after five weeks when it had just a single point and was at the bottom of the Serie A standings.
But a 93rd-minute goal by Mehdi Benatia in a 1-0 win over Cesena in week six got Guidolin’s group going and they haven’t stopped since.
As Udinese has quietly climbed the ladder in the Serie A standings, Sampdoria has done the exact opposite.
A year ago Sampdoria was the surprise fourth-place finisher in Serie A. Luigi Del Neri was its head coach. He moved to Juventus in the summer, but the rest of the puzzle remained relatively intact. Sampdoria, which is not a deep squad, didn’t add any major pieces to improve itself in last summer’s transfer window, even though it has been suggested that owner Riccardo Garrone has deep enough pockets to make major changes.
Nevertheless, Sampdoria performed very well in its Champions League qualification tie with German side Werder Bremen. The two sides were tied after regulation following two legs and it took an extra time goal from Werder Bremen to send Sampdoria out of the competition.
That was the beginning of bad things to come.
Not long after the season began, Garrone had a falling out with Antonio Cassano, the team’s best player. It isn’t the first time Cassano has had problems with a coach or someone in management before. Garrone decided Cassano needed to be benched for then-coach Domenico Di Carlo followed orders. Without Cassano the side started to slide. His striking partner Giampaolo Pazzini was like Robin without Batman.
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So when the January transfer window opened, Garrone decided to cash in on not just Cassano, but Pazzini as well. Less than six months later the club now finds itself headed to the second division of Italian football after narrowly missing the group stage of the Champions League at the beginning of the season.
Young Italian striker Federico Macheda, on loan from Manchester United, was never able to remain a regular, even though the door was left wide open for him to take either Cassano's or Pazzini’s starting role.
Udinese’s Champions League hope is still not secure as it needs at least a point against AC Milan in its final match of the season to remain ahead of Lazio, which is two points behind.
But the reality is that neither Udinese nor Lazio were thought of as Champions League caliber teams when the season began.
And it seems that Serie A fans should get ready for more disappointing results in the Champions League.
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