What’s another year? It’s a question once sung by that master of European competition Johnny Logan, but it could soon become the theme tune for the continental forays of Serie A sides.
One more season went into the history books on Thursday night with the dream of even a place in the semi-finals denied. It feels like Italian teams have been barred from a club where they used to enjoy some of their best nights out. There’s always another TV box-set to binge-watch, I suppose.
Napoli’s task at the San Paolo was always going to be arduous after a 2-0 defeat away to Arsenal, but as soon as they slipped behind, it escalated from Mission Improbable to Impossible. They had their chances to grab that vital first goal themselves, most notably through a thrilling Kalidou Koulibaly-inspired counter-attack concluded by Jose Callejon. But what had always felt like a long-shot quickly became a name-your-odds bet. Even the home support, capable of registering on the Richter Scale on a good night, felt like they never truly believed in this great escape and there were under 40,000 in attendance.
A certain sense of disappointment at even being in this competition was understandable up to a point. It was only a few months ago that Carlo Ancelotti’s side was narrowly knocked out of this tournament’s more glamorous big brother at the hands of Liverpool who – of course – are now in the Champions League’s final four. Italian football has a well-chronicled allergy to this kind of consolation prize and it flared up once again this year.
What it means, however, is that it is now 20 years and counting since a Serie A team even made the final of what we once called the UEFA Cup. That Parma side – under Alberto Malesani – lifted the trophy and reading the line-up induces a kind of heart-breaking nostalgia for how a mighty league has fallen. Gigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram, Juan Sebastian Veron and Hernan Crespo were among the stars at his disposal. A team like that might even give the current domestically dominant Juve line-up a thing or two to think about. And they were just one of a string of Italian clubs who bossed this particular competition in the previous decade and more. It sometimes felt like the Coppa Italia Part Two.
For a while we could use the excuse that Italian teams really did not take it seriously, but that hardly washes any more. Even in the Champions League – where they presumably are giving maximum effort – their record is far from exemplary of late. Once one of the biggest box-office stars, they are now relegated to Best Supporting Actor for much of the time. Our finest side, Juventus, continues to find someone too strong every year in an almost obsessive search for European validation.
There was a school of thought before this Napoli versus Arsenal clash that the Partenopei would be better positioned to progress since their second place in Serie A was so solid. They could concentrate on the Europa League while the Gunners were in a huge scrap to finish in the top four in the Premiership – at least that was the theory.
However, I’ve always been a bit doubtful of that argument, as a side that can coast to its domestic goals rarely seems to raise its game to the highest levels in other competition. Certainly both of Italy’s last sides to succumb failed to perform to their best in their ultimate elimination. A string of relatively soulless league matches may or may not have played their part.
Whatever you think the causes are – and in the Neapolitan case, the departure of Marek Hamsik cannot be ignored – the end result remains the same.
The Europa League, in its present and former guise, was always seen as a measure of the strength in depth of a league and it tells a harsh tale for Italy. Once the fairest of them all, the mirror now delivers a much less flattering message. For what progress there might have been, Serie A remains some distance behind the very best on the continent. The finest players in the world no longer flock to the division and that has taken its toll over time.
We already knew there was no quick fix, but these latest results just confirmed how long the repairs operation might require.
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