There’s no question about it. Calcio has gone through some lean years in the past decade or so; quite the contrast from it’s glory years of the 90’s and early 2000’s when Italian clubs were among the best of the best. The decline has been palpable. It’s been nearly ten years since Mourinho’s Inter won the 2010 Champions League final. Meanwhile, an Italian team hasn’t reached a UEFA Cup/Europa League final, let alone won the tournament, since Parma lifted the trophy in 1999. Truth be told, Serie A has had virtually zero continental success in a decade.
However, this past week, four Italian teams won on the same Champions League match day for the first time since November 2005. Those four victories, along with English clubs’ mixed results allowed Italy to move ahead of England into second in the UEFA league coefficient rankings. This is a far cry from just a few years ago when Italy has fallen to fourth and lost its fourth Champions League spot to the Bundesliga. With this in mind I had to ask; Is Serie A back among the elite leagues of Europe?
As you can see in the graphic, Italy made a big jump in just two seasons. At the end of the 2016/17 season, Italy sat fourth, trailing second place Germany by over six points. Now it’s Italy who sit second, jumping Germany and England in the process. Italy also have earned the most points through two match days of the current season. It’s a small sample size, but the results seems telling. Germany has fallen off majorly since their high water mark of a few seasons ago, while Italy has been buoyed by deep Champions League runs by its clubs in recent years.
The Top Dog Needs to Perform
There’s no question that Juventus are the darlings of Italian football. When it comes to domestic success there has been no comparison over their seven year reign. No one in Italy has been able to dethrone the Bianconeri despite valiant attempts from the likes of Napoli and Roma. However, since Massimo Allegri has taken the reigns from Antonio Conte, that domestic success has started to translate at the continental level.
For a league like Italy to be taken seriously abroad, it’s alpha dog needs to perform like one in European competitions. Juve has begun to do this consistently and this is probably the biggest reason that Italy has begun to rise again. The Bianconeri have made two Champions League finals in the last four seasons. Additionally, they were a late penalty kick away from reversing a 3-0 quarterfinal deficit against Real Madrid last season. Juve set the goal of regaining a place among Europe’s elite and they have. Juve’s calciopoli ravaged roster feels like ancient history. Now, all that remains for them is the ultimate objective of lifting a Champions League trophy.
Someone Else Needs to Step Up
There’s no question that Spain has been has been far and away the most successful league on the continental level in recent years. Unlike Spain, which has Real Madrid and Barcelona, Italy and Germany don’t have a second elite team. Italy has Juve. Germany has Bayern Munich. Meanwhile, England seems to have a revolving door of very good teams, but not an elite one since the fall of Manchester United.
Leagues like Serie A and the Bundesliga, which are dominated by one team, need a second team to step up in European competition to raise the league’s profile. In the time when the Bundesliga rose to second, Borussia Dortmund was performing at a high level, even reaching a Champions League final, which they lost to rival Bayern in 2012-13. Last year, Italy finally had a second team truly step up and make a deep run: Roma.
Last year’s surprise semifinal appearance by Roma was invaluable to Italy’s coefficient. Finally, a second Italian team was able to show that it compete on a European level. This was a far cry from the years where teams like Roma were unable to make it through the qualifying round and left Italy with just two participants in the group stage. If secondary teams like Roma, Napoli, and Inter can consistently advance out of the group stage, and even make the quarterfinals or better then Italy can truly stake it’s claim as one of the top 3 and maybe even top 2 European leagues.
Early Season Encouragement
As I highlighted earlier, when Italian teams swept all four Champions League matches this week, it was about as rare as a cicada sighting. Like the insects who will usually stay underground for up to 17 years, Italian teams hadn’t performed this feat in close to 13. These early season Champions League results are certainly encouraging. Italian teams are currently 6-1-1 in this season’s competition; the only blemish being Roma’s loss at the Bernabéu to the three time defending Champions.
Three of the six victories for Italy have come against teams from the other leagues ranked in Europe’s Top 3. Juve won at Valencia 2-0 despite Ronaldo’s red card. Inter were able to erase a deficit to topple Tottenham 2-1 at the San Siro. While perhaps most impressive was Napoli beating Liverpool 1-0 at the San Paolo. It’s those kind of wins, which will help prove that Italy should be considered among Europe’s best leagues.
If Italy can keep up this early season form, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that all four teams could advance from their groups. It’s statistcally unlikely considering that Napoli are grouped with PSG and Liverpool and Inter are with Barcelona and Tottenham, but these kind of wins boost hope and confidence for that matter.
Act Like You Belong
In order to get the results that will earn them the respect around Europe, Italy’s top teams need to operate like top teams. Juventus without question checks this box. The team consistently invests in top class players to field a team that allows it to compete year in and year out in Europe. They took that to the next level when they brought in arguably the world’s best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, this summer. That move was made with one end goal in mind; winning the Champions League.
It’s no secret that Italy’s other high profile teams don’t have the financial clout to compete with Juve or many of the other elite clubs of Europe. However, we have begun to see good signs from the rest of le sette sorelle or seven sisters of calcio. AC Milan, Italy’s most successful team in continental competition, seems to be righting the ship and made important investments in players like Gonzalo Higuain and Mattia Caldara this summer. Their Derby della Madonnina rivals, Inter, have performed well to open their first Champions League campaign since 2011-12. When these two historic heavyweights punch at their weight, Serie A is the better for it.
Meanwhile, the two most competitive teams behind Juve over the past few years, remain so. Both teams made important sales this past summer, but both reinvested that money to reinvigorate their rosters. Additionally, Napoli brought in an elite coach, Carlo Ancelotti, to ensure that they don’t feel the blow of losing Maurizio Sarri to Chelsea. If Roma can get the new stadium that James Pallotta continues to push for then Roma’s revenue streams may finally match the club’s recent ambitions.
Roma’s city rivals, Lazio, aren’t quite as consistently competitive in Serie A. However, after barely missing out on a Champions League place last season, the team looks to push for one again this season. The strongest indication of this was the club holding onto it’s best player, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, rather than cashing in him in for a huge plusvalenza. Lastly, Fiorentina has held onto it’s young jewels, Giovani Simeone and Federico Chiesa, as they look to push for a European spot.
Are We There Yet?
From all indications, it appears as if Serie A has made strides in repairing it’s continental image. The league is still a far cry from it’s golden era, which for all intents and purposes ended with the calciopoli scandal. However, despite hitting a low point just a few years ago, I think it is again safe to say that the league is back among the Top 3 in Europe. I also think it’s possible that a strong argument can be made, based on on the field results in Europe, that Serie A is pretty close to on par with the Premier League. However, Serie A clubs besides Juve need to annually step up to prove that the league isn’t a one trick pony and deserves its place among the elite.
Where do you rate Italy among Europe’s top leagues?
This poll is closed
On par with England at #2.
Pushing England for #2.
Outside of top 3.