To the majority of supporters, Italian football is known to be nothing more than a fallen giant. It is known as the sad, fading image of what was once reputed to be the best league on the planet – an image vivid only in the memory of older generations. In the eyes of the mainstream fan, Italian football is corrupt, low quality and poorly organised.
Ultimately, whilst the keenest aficionados of Serie A will disagree with this gloomy view, who can really be blamed for sustaining such an opinion? If one’s contact with the Italian game is represented quasi-exclusively by European competitions, which is the case for the bulk of football fans, then such an opinion should be understood – there is an element of truth to it.
With Juventus being the only Italian club able to perform consistently at European level over the past few years, it is inevitable that onlookers judge the peninsula’s football unenthusiastically. This year has followed a familiar trend. Aside from Italy’s Old Lady, all Italian clubs have been eliminated in Europe, mostly with lukewarm and disappointing performances, especially when compared to results of the past.
Nonetheless, there are reasons for optimism in the Italian game. This season has seen numerous teams competing for qualification to Europe and others have shown signs of challenging the hegemony of current five-time champions, Juventus’. There is now considerable quality, verve and excitement in the league. And though Juve continue to raise the bar every season, if the chasing pack can continue to improve, there is significant evidence of Italy’s progress towards re-joining Europe’s elite. Indeed, Calcio devotees would argue that there is more than a glimmer at the end of the tunnel.
For the sake of this article, let’s briefly acknowledge and duck the argument regarding the quality of footballing structures in Italy. There is little or no debate: fans and experts alike, Italian and non-Italians, agree that most Serie A stadiums, like many youth academies, need a modernising revolution. However, it is perhaps more important to focus on the promising improvements in quality and competitiveness exhibited this year.
Despite Juve’s seemingly comfortable glide towards the Scudetto, which might indicate otherwise, the current season has seen a fierce and on-going contest for the first six positions in the league, guarantors of qualification to European competition. Conventionally, a struggle of this kind is an indicator of an entertaining level of football, where uncertainty keeps the fans on edge till the very last minute of the very last game.
Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli have shown glimpses of tactical and technical brilliance, and they are perhaps the only Italian team to have exited a European competition with pride, after their fantastic display against European giants Real Madrid. Expressing one of the most aesthetically pleasing football styles in Europe, Napoli appear prepared for a European, as well as domestic, step-up. The Partenopei currently sit third in the league, with Champion’s League qualification seemingly firmly in their hands.
The next three league positions, from fourth to sixth, offer qualification to the Europa League and have been the most fiercely contested throughout the campaign. In their current order, Lazio, Atalanta, AC Milan and Inter are all tightly compressed within a five-point margin, and the race for these European places looks set to go down to the wire.
Simone Inzaghi’s Lazio have risen like a Phoenix out of the Marcelo Bielsa scandal in the summer, reaching the final of the Coppa Italia. Meanwhile, Gianpiero Gasperini’s Atalanta, a proven blend of experience and (heaps of) young talent, have been the season’s surprise package. AC Milan, led by Vincenzo Montella, have displayed their best football in recent years, also fielding one of the youngest sides in Serie A. Finally, Inter, acquired in the summer by the Chinese group Suning, have brought in a number of quality players and are determined to kick-start their climb back to the top. One of the four is sure to miss out on European football, but the end result is unpredictable: each and every one have a number of cards up their sleeves.
At the very top of the table, Juventus sit pretty, with Roma left as the sole competitor in the title race. However, the eight-point margin is a comfortable one for the Bianconeri, and although the Giallorossi will undoubtedly aim to sustain their challenge, the Scudetto race seems all but over.
Juve’s dominance over other Italian sides has also been evident in Europe, where they have been the major exponents of Italian football, both in recent years and during this season. The Bianconeri’s monopoly begs two questions: when will the gap with Juventus be bridged? And when will other Italian clubs manage to compete on similar levels in Europe? However, there are signs that answers to these questions may come sooner rather than later.
Some aspects of this potential renaissance have already been discussed. Lazio are building a fine squad under coach Simone Inzaghi and have the potential to keep competing among Italy’s elite next year. Atalanta have provided a blueprint for success for provincial teams who are willing to invest and trust in local talents, a feature which in recent years has been sorely lacking in the Italian game. Indeed, though Atalanta may lack the necessary prestige to keep hold of their most promising starlets – with midfielder Roberto Gagliardini already having joined Inter and defender Mattia Caldara bound for Juventus in two years – Gasperini’s men have been a breath of fresh air and positive ambassadors for Italian football.
Sketch by Federico Manasse (fedewap_draws). ‘Protagonists of the Derby della Madonnina: Roberto Gagliardini’
Finally, the two Milanese teams, now both in the hands of new and wealthy proprietors, supposedly have the means necessary to improve the quality of their squads. With competent administrators, the two fallen giants should soon be back on their feet. As such, this renewed financial clout makes the Milanese clubs the most likely candidates, at least of those clubs who currently sit outside the top three, to threaten Juve’s dominance.
Roma and Napoli, on the other hand, already possess the necessary technical excellence to challenge the Bianconeri. Indeed, one of the main differences between these two pretenders and The Old Lady can perhaps be reduced to that intangible quality of ‘winning mentality’. In a season that has seen Allegri’s men play some of their least entertaining football, at least domestically speaking, Napoli and Roma have still been unable to exploit their rival’s occasional slip-ups. For instance, Roma’s draw with Atalanta last weekend quintessentially demonstrated their inability to ‘grind-out’ results, something for which Juve have become past masters.
Milan and Inter, on the other hand, have less ‘abstract’ issues to deal with. With the new capital at their disposal, the Milanese cousins supposedly have what it takes to rebuild, and not totally from scratch. In fact, the Rossoneri have a solid core of young talents (Romagnoli, Locatelli, Donnarumma and Suso, to name but a few), as well as an experienced (new) CEO, Marco Fassone. With the guidance of Fassone and his advisors, the new Chinese owners should aim to retain these talents, while adding quality to the team – quality being the major difference between Montella’s men and Juventus. It will take time and effort, but it’s a realistic objective.
Inter face a fairly similar situation, although not entirely. While having a more stable and better-established set of owners, the Nerazzurri have also endured significant upheaval in recent times. After numerous managerial tribulations, with Roberto Mancini leaving shortly before the season began and Franck De Boer sacked mid-way through the campaign, couple with some dubious investments on the field (namely Gabriel Barbosa and Geoffrey Kondogbia), Inter’s main aim should be to re-structure the squad ahead of next season.
In the immediate future, all the above-mentioned teams have a common goal: qualifying for European football. The future success and ultimate aim of challenging Juve’s hegemony, both domestically and in Europe, depends on said qualification. It brings sponsors, prestige and is paramount for any team wishing to compete with football’s elite.