By Sam Praise | International Football Correspondent
For a while, it felt like Italian clubs were playing for coefficient points as much as trophies in the Champions League. As Germany approached the threshold set by Serie A clubs for a fourth spot in the main event, the peninsula’s sides hung on gamely.
Inter’s 2010 final win over Bayern Munich in Madrid seemed to have given Italy some breathing space, and their repeat success against die Roten in the last 16 of the competition the following season appeared set to stave off the threat once and for all.
But the Nerazzurri’s subsequent defeat to Schalke in the quarter-final was a sign of things to come. By the summer of 2012, Italy’s clubs were fighting over three Champions League places instead of four, and the situation now looks likely to get worse before it gets any better.
While Italy, France and Portugal all sit comfortably above the cut-off for three Champions League spots, the former pair will each lose a huge advantage when entries for the 2015-16 competitions are judged.
The performances of clubs in European competition over a five-year period are used to determine the position of countries within the coefficient rankings. And after next season, Inter’s 2010 victory will no longer have any weight. Milan’s run to the last 16 will also mean nothing when it comes to sorting the wheat from the chaff, while France will lose the benefit of Lyon and Bordeaux’s exploits that season.
|COEFFICIENTS | How countries are graded|
All the while, Portugal will see its teams boosted thanks to points earned in 2010-11 during a standout year in the Europa League. Porto overcame Braga in the final of the event after their country rivals had seen off Benfica in the last four. That dominance saw clubs from the Iberian nation rack up more coefficient weight than anyone else over the course of the season.
And it is the relative failure in the second-tier competition which sees Italy scrambling to maintain an advantage over Portugal despite markedly better returns in the Champions League.
Juventus’ run to the semi-final, the second leg of which sees them host Benfica on Thursday, breaks a six–year run without a last-four participant from the bel paese. Not since Fiorentina lost on penalties, after a forgettable two legs against Rangers in 2008, have an Italian side come this close to silverware in the competition.
What’s more, the disdain with which some Italian sides have treated the Europa League has come back to bite them.
While the argument that squads are not deep enough to deal with the huge influx of extra matches has been shouted loud by the clubs’ representatives, the narrowing of opportunities for success which comes with it thanks to the reduced coefficient rates sees Serie A’s clubs staring at a vicious circle rather than a victorious one. Udinese’s quick exit this term, for example, has massively reduced the average score which is then shared amongst Italian clubs for future coefficient tables.
Still, should Juve go on to win this year’s competition in their own stadium, the resulting rankings boost could see Italy remain in fourth spot for the time being, and with Portugal set to take a huge hit over 2016-17 unless the Europa League successes of 2010-11 are matched or bettered, the peninsula might just be in a position to begin rebuilding its shattered reputation.
However, that will take a victory against Benfica on Thursday, with the Bianconeri trailing 2-1 from the first leg. An exit for the Turin side will make things all the more bleak for the entire nation, but victory may be the first step in the bid to turn the corner.
But they do – and will – need massively improved performances in the Europa League over a long period if Italy is to become a European giant once more.