London – To the majority of football supporters, the Italian game is a fallen giant. Serie A is seen as a fading image of what was once the best league on the planet – an image that remains vivid only in the memories of older generations. Its keenest aficionados will disagree but, given that most people only experience Italian clubs through European competitions, can they really be blamed for holding such a gloomy view of Serie A?
This year has followed a familiar trend, with Juventus the only team still in Europe at the start of April. Napoli were beaten by Real Madrid home and away in the last-16 of the Champions League, while Roma did not even make it to the group stage after their defeat to Porto in the qualifiers. Instead, they dropped into the Europa League, where they lost to Lyon in the last-16. But at least they went further than Fiorentina, who were knocked out in the first knockout stage, and Inter and Sassuolo, who both finished bottom of their groups. Inter, champions of Europe just seven years ago, finished below Sparta Prague, Hapoel Be’er Sheva and Southampton.
Italian clubs have proved disappointing in Europe and the country’s stadiums and academies are still outdated, but there are reasons for optimism. A number of clubs are competing for places in Europe and others have shown signs that they can step up and challenge for the title. Juve continue to raise the bar every season but, if the chasing pack continue to improve, there is significant evidence that Italian clubs are on their way back to the elite. There is now considerable quality, verve and excitement in the league – and more than a glimmer at the end of the tunnel.
Despite Juve’s seemingly comfortable glide towards a sixth successive Scudetto, this season has revealed a tough battle for the top six positions in the league, with fans likely to be on the edge of their seats until the last minute of the last game. At the very top of the table, Juventus sit nine points above Roma and 10 above Napoli, but both clubs possess the technical excellence required to challenge the leaders. They just lack that intangible quality: a “winning mentality”. Juventus have played some of their least entertaining football this season but Napoli and Roma (who have both outscored them in the league) have still been unable to exploit their occasional slip-ups. For instance, Juventus could only draw with Atalanta on Friday night but Roma responded by losing the derby 3-1 to Lazio on Sunday afternoon.
Napoli have shown glimpses of sheer brilliance under Maurizio Sarri this season and are perhaps the only Italian club to have gone out of Europe with pride, after winning their Champions League group and then putting up a hearty display against Real Madrid in the last-16. With one of the most aesthetically pleasing styles in Europe and their place in next season’s Champions League qualifiers all but guaranteed, they look ready to step up in the league and in Europe.
Lazio, who sit seven points behind Napoli with four games to place, are building a fine squad under Simone Inzaghi and have the potential to compete the elite next season. They have recovered well after the Marcelo Bielsa scandal in the summer – when he resigned after just two days in the job – and have the Coppa Italia final against Juventus to look forward to.
Remarkably, the last automatic Europa League place does not belong to Milan, Inter or Fiorentina – who sit in sixth, seventh and eighth – but to Atalanta, the season’s surprise package. Gianpiero Gasperini’s team have provided a blueprint for success for provincial teams who are willing to invest and trust in local talents, which has been sorely in the Italian game in recent years. 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 – Gian Piero Gasperini’s men have been a breath of fresh air and positive ambassadors for Italian football.
The youngest team fielded in Serie A this season belongs to Milan, who have regularly put out an XI with an average age of just 24. Vincenzo Montella has a solid core of young talents – including 22-year-old Alessio Romagnoli, 19-year-old Manuel Locatelli, 23-year-old Suso and 18-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma – and they earned some good experience by beating Juventus to win the Supercoppa Italiana for the first time in five years in December.
The club has an experienced CEO in Marco Fassone and their new Chinese owners say they want to retain their young talents while adding quality to the squad. It will take time and effort, but it’s a project that excites the owners, according to Fassone. “We’ll have a significant budget for the next transfer window,” said the CEO last month. “The goal for the coming years is to build a very competitive and ambitious Milan.”
Inter, also acquired by Chinese owners within the last year, are determined to kickstart their climb back to the top. After numerous managerial tribulations – with Roberto Mancini leaving shortly before the season began and Frank de Boer sacked midway through the campaign – and some dubious investments in the transfer market (namely Brazilian forward Gabriel Barbosa and French midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia), Inter’s main aim should be to restructure the squad in the summer. If their new owners prove competent and ambitious, both Milan clubs could be back on their feet soon.
The Milanese giants have a long way to go if they want to catch Juventus. The Old Lady are the only domestic champions left in Europe this season and are on course to win a treble in the next month. But Milan and Inter – like Roma, Napoli, Lazio and Atalanta – know what they have to do: knock Juve off their perch, both domestically and in Europe.
The Guardian Sport