The Champions League draw was not kind to Italy. With the exception of Milan (who could have faced Barcelona instead), all clubs managed to draw the hardest possible opponent for the knockout stage.
The positive is that it left us all with three mouth-watering ties, but it leaves Serie A facing the prospect of losing its fourth qualification spot into the competition to the Germans. As such, the most important game for Italy is the least glamorous of the three ties. Fiorentina can do Serie A the world of good by overcoming Bayern Munich. Why? It all boils down to UEFA’s barmy association coefficient system, which sees clubs from each nation awarded points for winning and drawing games in the two UEFA club competitions (as well as various bonus points for reaching the knockout stages) and divides them by the number of teams participating from that country. Unfortunately, the points awarded are the same for each competition, regardless of the fact the quality is wildly different in each. So while the Germans were tearing up the UEFA Cup two seasons ago (five clubs in the first knockout round, compared to Italy’s one), Italy was suffering for the lack of Champions League progression in the same season (Roma were the lone ranger in the quarter-finals) and representation in the second tier of European competition. As a result, Germany added a respectable 13.5 points to their coefficient, 3.25 points more than Italy – a large margin in this system.
The other major factor is that this coefficient system is based on the last five seasons, so come 2010/11, Italy will lose their good work from 2004/05, where they beat the Germans by just less than 3.5 points. The gap between the two associations as of May 2009 is 6.215 points – that will close to just 2.786 once 2004/05 disappears. But that leaves us with only four season’s worth of coefficient, so we must include the current coefficient points totals for the 2009/10 campaign to make up the five (Italy – 12.285, Germany – 12.250). Thus, the gap as it stands right now is 2.821. It is genuinely very close. Now consider that for each win in the Champions League you gain two points, and you might just be able to see how much rests on the shoulders of the Tuscans. If Bayern were to win both legs, they would add five unanswered points to Germany’s total (this includes the one bonus point they would receive for making the quarter-finals).
The coefficient will be the least of Claudio Prandelli’s worries. More pressing issues revolve around how he sets about beating Bayern – they only managed a 1-1 draw at home last season, and were soundly beaten 3-0 in Munich. Fiore are a different team this time around. The experience of the last campaign has stood these players in good stead, particularly Alberto Gilardino, who looks far more comfortable at the top level than he did at Milan, and Riccardo Montolivo. Experience is an underrated commodity in European football, and short of buying seasoned Champions League players, who will generally cost a lot of money, it takes time and patience to gain.
Sadly, they will not get very far if they continue to defend in the current manner. ‘Offence sells tickets, defence wins championships’ has never rung more true in Europe – even for Barcelona, who did not concede an away goal in the quarter or semi-finals last season, and only conceded at home to Lyon in the first knockout round after they had scored four themselves – leading 5-1 on aggregate and finishing the tie. If you cannot defend effectively, you will not progress, and at times Fiorentina do not defend effectively enough, even with January arrival Felipe. Thankfully, they may not have to at the Allianz Arena – Bayern mustered one goal in their three group games at home – but they are a changed side now Coach Louis van Gaal has finally settled on a side and a formation. Having tried 4-3-3, 4-3-1-2, 3-5-2 he has finally settled on a simple 4-4-2 and a strike partnership of Ivica Olić (occasionally Thomas Müller steps into the breach, as he did on Saturday against Borussia Dortmund) and Mario Gómez, who looks sensational in the Bundesliga, but average whenever he steps outside of that comfort zone. They will start as favourites, but the superior name and history of Bayern enhances the image of what is actually a beatable team.
Beatable because they are at times a very open side. Any team managing to accommodate Bastian Schweinsteiger, Franck Ribéry, Arjen Robben (an incredible player in a great vein of form, having scored in each of his last five games), Olić/Müller and Gómez in the one team will struggle not to be open defensively. Schweinsteiger has had to curb his attacking instincts somewhat since being moved into the centre by van Gaal, allowing Robben and Ribéry to play at the same time, but it does not change the fact he is not a natural when it comes to defending. Even if a side were to take advantage of this, there is still the problem of being caught on the break by their two wingers. It is a conundrum, one which, as difficult as it may be to read, a side better than Fiorentina will be able to solve, but one which seems a little beyond the Tuscan’s right now.