Champions League inquest to Italy’s bitter disappointment

Resident writer Paolo Cabrelli gives his opinion to the midweek Italian exodus from the Champions League.

Much has been written now about the ignominious exit of Italy’s three Champions League representatives. But what can Inter, Juventus, Roma and the rest of Serie A really learn about their disastrous European campaigns?

As expected, the Italian media has been pretty unforgiving in their evaluation of this week’s performances, pointing the finger squarely at the inability of the trio to overcome the alleged “pace and power” of the Premier League’s finest.

”Chased out of Europe,” was La Repubblica’s take, while Corriere della Sera concluded: “England remains one step ahead. The collision with the English teams was frightening.” Gazzetta della Sport focused much of it’s wrath on Inter, “[Mourinho] gave the opposition an extra man, Vieira … It is inconceivable to get your starting selection so wrong in such a big game.”

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The reactions of the various men in charge have also been interesting. Roma’s slightly beleaguered Coach Luciano Spalletti doesn’t think it’s down to any sense of inferiority, suggesting instead that the pressure faced by Italian players is far greater than that faced by their counterparts in England, with the media’s “guns” constantly trained at their backs. Jose Mourinho was relatively gracious in defeat, choosing to deflect attention from his players – as usual – aiming squarely at the negative nature of the Italian press. Suffice to say the Special One was deeply embarrassed by the whole affair. Claudio Ranieri takes his customary contrarian view – fairly pleased with the performance of his players, he simply rues the injuries that befell his “valiant” squad both before and during the encounter.

The games have been written about – in compelling detail – elsewhere on these pages, but there’s only one statistic that rings loud and true, irrespective of injuries, media politics and all other mitigating circumstances, and that heart-crushing stat is – England 3-0 Italy. As a snake eyeing a rabbit might say, that’s not an easy one to swallow.

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Objectively, if such a thing exists in football, over two legs, the Serie A teams were not good enough. It is not Arsenal’s fault that Roma wasted the best part of £10m on Julio Baptista, have no depth in their squad and a goalkeeper who seemed to slip into a waking coma during the penalty shoot out. Nor is it Chelsea’s problem that Pavel Nedved finally seems ready for the knackers yard, that Ranieri showed little or no faith in Sebastian Giovinco’s talents over 180 minutes, or that Giorgio Chiellini seems prone to moments of utter recklessness. And it certainly isn’t Manchester United’s fault that Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a big game coward. The Premier League teams scored more goals than the opposition they were presented with – in normal time or during extra time, they showed more quality. It’s that simple.

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As hard as it is to take the relentless, arrogant crowing of the English, ex-professionals, commentators and national press, at present it is an inescapable truth – the Italian teams are trailing behind. And it’s been on the horizon ever since Liverpool overturned Milan’s three goal advantage in 2005. That was a key moment that sent a crack through the European confidence of one nation and was like a shot of pure belief into the arm of the other. It was the precise point at which the English discovered the weak spot and have been pummelling it ever since.

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Not that everyone sees it this way – Azzurri supremo Marcello Lippi has also offered his sage opinion on the situation. He sees no English dominance, as there is very little “Italian” or “English” in any of the sides involved as European representatives from either country. A moot point, I feel, as these are the nominal teams and conclusions as to the “health” of the respective domestic leagues cannot help but be drawn. Lippi also goes to some lengths to explain away the results: “Juve were absolutely on a par with Chelsea and neither side was better than the other. If not for the number of injuries, the Bianconeri could’ve gone through. It’s not enough evidence to suggest the English clubs are stronger…

Roma tried everything. Do you really want to consider such a defeat as proof of one team’s superiority?

Inter struggled more in the first leg than the second. Let’s just say they were eliminated at San Siro. In this case we also need to consider that they picked the best team in the world right now, so losing to the best is no reason to dub it a crisis.”

Winning isn’t proof of superiority? I thought it was the definition of it. The only way of determining margins of superiority in sport is tallying victories against defeats. Very little else matters. Goals scored, goals conceded, that is what ultimately counts – history soon forgets bad luck and what-ifs.

But the margins were narrow nonetheless. Baptista was one good contact away from knocking out a hesitant looking Arsenal team, Nedved almost equalized with the last kick of the ball at Stamford Bridge, and Inter smacked the woodwork twice against a Manchester United team not as sure on their feet as previous weeks.

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So what was the difference? At the moment, the difference is money. Quite simply, the Premier League has the backing and fan base to generate transfer funds beyond the capability of their Serie A counterparts. Milan, Juve and Inter will always be able to pull out one BIG world class signing a season but Manchester United and Chelsea can make those acquisitions throughout their squads – attracting at least two capable players for every position. Roma, Arsenal and Liverpool are not so different in the fact that beyond their marquee talent, the money dries up. However, the English teams in that triptych benefit from the worldwide marketing phenomenon of the Premier League – whereby a series of talented players drift in, choosing the glitz of that league over what the world sees as the archaic charms of Serie A.

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I think there can be few doubts that the managers at the helm of the best teams are pretty much on a par, barring the legend that is Sir Alex Ferguson – but even he received a footballing lesson from Carlo Ancelotti in 2007. Spalletti, Wenger, Ranieri, Hiddink, Mourinho, Benitez and Prandelli are all superb readers of the game but what separates them at the moment are the resources at their disposal to express their intelligence. Wenger may not have the financial clout of his Premier League brethren but he has the absolute backing of his club to support his conspicuous predilection for young talent. Given £100m to spend, he’d probably build a new youth team training centre rather than splash out on David Villa. Although Ranieri and Ancelotti (and now Mourinho) have been accused of not trusting in youth, to some extent they have been forced to rely on “tried and tested” players simply because they produce a basic level of performance they must reach to keep the whole shebang going.

In 2001 Auxerre’s legendary Coach Guy Roux was offered the job as Coach of the France national team. He accepted on the condition that he would be allowed to drop every member of the World Cup and European Championship winning squad – except Zinedine Zidane. His reasoning was that they were finished, they’d won it all – what else could they achieve? Roux was promptly dumped out of the running, only for France to exit the 2002 World Cup without winning a single game or scoring a solitary goal.

The same has happened in Italy – collectively, they are still winding down from a glittering golden age. In the 1990s, Serie A captured the imagination and dominated Europe and in the 2000s, Milan has stamped it’s authority on the European Cup. Not forgetting the near success of the Azzurri in 1994, 2000 and the dominant victory of the 2006 World Cup. But the generation of inspirational players that led this charge on world football (not seen since West Germany / Bayern Munich’s stellar displays in the 1970s) have simply not been replaced. Young players such as Giuseppe Rossi, Sebastian Giovinco and (the not so young physically, but mentally…) Antonio Cassano – were they playing in the mid-1990s like Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero and Gianfranco Zola, would be starters for the top Italian clubs. However, they have been shown a distinct lack of faith – a blatant unwillingness to invest in the kind of unpredictable talent that produces both magic on the pitch and revenue off it.

Players like these want to win things for Italian football, they’re hungry and have the kind of motivational fire that older players lack. When Giovinco was finally released from the shackles of the bench against Chelsea, he left the West London posers for dead on a number of occasions. He is an irresistible little player who will only gain confidence by making mistakes and then eliminating them from his game, when it matters. Del Piero had the opportunity, so why not he? What’s changed?

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Now could be the most exciting time in Serie A’s history because the Coaches have the chance to experiment when the rest of the world isn’t watching. Show faith in exciting new Italian talent today and they could be world beaters five years down the line. But as always with football, a grinding campaign that ends with capturing that all-important fourth spot is prioritised over a gloriously entertaining season that might leave a team out of a European competition they’re not currently equipped to win.

In Gabrielle Marcotti and Gianluca Vialli’s excellent study of the differences and similarities between Serie A and the Premier League, The Italian Job, the general conclusion drawn is that Italian players are professionals who approach each game clinically, as a job to which they give 100% technical commitment. On the other hand, the Premier League’s philosophy is to view football as a game that is to be played and 110% is given blindly to the cause of competing. This isn’t to say that Italian players lack passion, but in the modern game, perhaps 100% just isn’t enough. After all, a professional is subject to the hesitancy of his organization and at present Serie A is caught in the grip of an overwhelming sense of trepidation. A player, on the other hand, is loyal only to his love of the game, and that’s something Italian football must rediscover.

If Spalletti and Mourinho are correct and Italian football is too constricted to perform and invent when it matters, then something has to change. Because football is a game and only the players able to improvise with its dynamic nature will be successful.

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