With almost a third of the season complete, Serie A is shaping up to be the most competitive it has been for quite some time. Although there is a reasonably familiar look to the table, with Juventus and AC Milan occupying the top two positions, only ten points separate the team in pole position (Juve) and Chievo, who are currently 11th.
As things stand, Juventus, AC, Udinese and Lazio will all feel they are in contention for the Scudetto, while others such as Roma and Napoli will still be hoping that a consistent run of form could propel them into the title race. Even Inter Milan, despite their shambolic start, are refusing to accept defeat regarding their own aspirations of being crowned Champions. As ridiculous as that may sound at first, the fact is that the Nerazzurri are only 11 points behind the Old Lady, with 81 points still attainable.
As each weekends fixtures approach, it is difficult to predict the outcome of almost any match, which would seem to suggest that the competing teams are quite evenly matched. In an ideal world, this is how most fans of football throughout the world would like to see the game played, especially at a time when, in most leagues across Europe, the gap between the elite few and the rest of the teams is widening at an alarming rate.
The question for fans of Calcio therefore, is whether the competitiveness of Serie A is actually a good thing for Italian football, or is it simply proof that the bigger clubs have become weaker in comparison to the past, meaning that the smaller teams have managed to catch up without really improving in quality? The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
Starting with the negatives, Italian football has certainly seen it’s fair share of turmoil over the last decade. Calciopoli, financial difficulties and a stubbornness in accepting dated tactics and fitness levels resulted in Serie A losing its status as Europe’s finest league. After decades of dominance across Europe, the likes of AC, Inter and Juve started to suffer regular beatings in the Champions League, as Real Madrid, Barcelona and the ‘big four’ of the Premier League began to battle it out in the latter stages of the competition.
Serie A’s representatives in the Europa League (or Uefa Cup, as it used to be) also suffered, regularly being knocked out of the tournament in the group stages. Although there may be an argument as to how seriously the Italian teams viewed the competition, due to the almost insignificant financial rewards for success, the co-efficient points system (and pride!) should have been incentive enough, as the dominance of Italians in both the Uefa Cup and the Cup Winners Cup during the 90’s played a big part in Serie A’s feared reputation around Europe.
Calcio eventually paid the price for it’s decline, and Serie A started the 2011-12 campaign ranked as the fourth strongest League in Europe, with only three qualifying places available for next seasons Champions League. Hopefully, this will be the wake up call needed for Italian sides, who will simply have to start performing somewhere nearer to the levels they used to, if they genuinely want to be considered as current contenders, rather than ‘has beens’ with glorious history.
Fortunately, it does look as though Serie A is starting to catch up with the Premier League and La Liga once more, and the ‘sentence’ handed out by UEFA (losing the forth spot) appears to have been implemented at the end of the crisis, rather than at the start, meaning that it shouldn’t be too long before the Bundesliga falls below the Italian league once more.
In the immediate aftermath of Calciopoli, the quality of Italian sides was undeniably reduced, aside from Inter and Roma, who were the only ‘big’ clubs who escaped punishment. However, enough time has now passed for all of the affected teams to return to a state of normality, as is shown by the lofty positions of Juventus, AC Milan and Lazio. During the time it took them to recover, other clubs saw the opportunity to build, such as Napoli and Udinese, which has led to the increased competition at the top of the table. Slowly but surely, all of these teams have now amassed squads capable of challenging for the title, which has so far led to an entertaining league this season.
Times may have changed, and although Serie A is no longer the guaranteed destination for the world’s very best players, Calcio is certainly not without its stars. All of our teams have players who would be welcomed into any club, at home or abroad- Buffon, Handanovic, Chiellini, Thiago Silva, Pirlo, Sneijder, De Rossi, Hamsik, Di Natale, Ibrahimovic, Pato, Cavani, Lavezzi- this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to top quality players within Serie A. There is also talent throughout the league, not just within the top six or seven teams, with players like Montolivio, Jovetic, Giovinco, Ilicic and Gaston Ramirez deserving a mention.
Tactically, Italian teams seem to be adapting more to the modern game, and it has been noticeable that, on the whole, league games this season have been played at a much greater pace, with more emphasis on attacking football, while abroad, Napoli’s haul of four points from their two games against Manchester City will have been noticed on the continent, as will AC Milan’s valiant efforts in their matches against Barcelona, the best team on the planet. In Europe, it already appears as though Serie A will out-perform the Bundesliga this term, which must be the minimum target for the next few years.
Whether or not Calcio will ever reach the heights it did during the 80’s and 90’s remains to be seen, but hopefully its decline has finally come to an end, meaning that the rebuilding process can now get underway.
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