English clubs can capitalise on Italian slide

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Arsenal and Chelsea have nothing to fear in the Champions League. Serie A is on the slide, and Italian teams have been a fading force in Europe’s premier club competition.

A harsh assessment some might say, of a nation that has brought home the World Cup four times - most recently in 2006 - and produced more European Cup finalists (26) than any other.

It wasn't so long ago that they were celebrating an all-Italian final, with AC Milan emerging victorious from a penalty shoot-out showdown with Juventus at Old Trafford in 2003 - and that was after overcoming their rivals Inter Milan in the previous round.

In terms of actually lifting the trophy, the Italians have fared no worse than the English. Milan beat Liverpool in 2007 and Inter won it three years later, under the guidance of Jose Mourinho. But, the reality is that Serie 'A' sides have made only four semi-final appearances since 2003, compared to 14 representatives from the Premier League.

This year there are three Italian teams in the last 16 of the Champions League — more than any other country. Inter qualified as group winners, Milan came in behind Barcelona and Napoli advanced at the expense of Manchester City.

As a result, the competition has served up two enticing encounters of England versus Italy, with Arsenal returning to the scene of one of their most impressive European performances under Arsene Wenger, when they face Milan at the San Siro, while Chelsea meet an in-form Napoli team who are back in the competition for the first time since the era of Diego Maradona.

Italian pride has certainly been damaged in recent years, and there is no doubt these teams will be looking to restore it. But the chances of either Milan or Napoli progressing ahead of their English opponents, especially over two legs, is slim.

"In the 1990s we had the best teams in Europe, probably the world and now is a difficult time," admitted Gianfranco Zola in an interview with the Daily Mail. "We have to learn from the situation and rebuild but I've no doubt Italy will be back to its best.

"We have a big tradition in football and a lot of human qualities. These things are very important. In difficult times we always give our best and you must respect an Italian team because we know how to win games, and how to go through the stages."

However, the problems in Italy are much more deep-rooted. As Serie 'A' attendances continue to dwindle, clubs have become over-reliant on TV income (cameras now venture into the dressing rooms) and open-minded to foreign investment, the first of which arrived last summer with an American takeover at Roma.

Similarly to England, the financial issues bite even harder in the game's lower reaches. The top tier of Lega Pro (formerly Serie C) has 18 teams and nine of them have had points deducted this season because of financial irregularities, like unpaid taxes and salaries.

At this level, they regularly play to fewer than a thousand fans - a former platform for the country's brightest up-and-coming talent is already stagnant, and now at risk of extinction.

"Improving the atmosphere is a big thing, because the players will respond, but we also have to improve the quality of the young players," added Zola. "In the past Italy has produced good players from the streets — I learned to play on the street — and now the kids are schooled mainly in academies.

"The academies are good but they can't give you that extra quality. Also, they have a tendency to choose young players who are more physical and tactical and sacrifice good young players who can play but don't have the physique.

"I wouldn't have made it if they were choosing back then by the criteria they use today. Because I was so little I wouldn't have been picked."

It is a bleak assessment, and sobering step backwards for a nation that is accustomed to the finest football. Yet Italy is a country often inspired by crisis - as proved by Juventus, who look dangerous in their quest to restore former glories, without the distraction of European football, as they strike for a 28th Scudetto - a first since the 'Calciopoli' match-fixing scandal which broke in 2006.

This year the downward trend becomes more tangible as UEFA's co-efficient forces Serie A to surrender its fourth Champions League spot to the Bundesliga. The problems rumble on.

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