|A dismayed Montolivo leaves the field|
to mention, the Champions League is in Milan's DNA; so, it should be no surprise that once again they provided the only Italian blueprint for Champions League success, after both Juventus and Napoli were eliminated from Europe's biggest competition at the group stage this past week.
Domestically, Milan are in ninth, a massive twenty-two points away from leaders Juventus, but in Europe they somehow manage to show their other, more charming side. They are a bit like that couple who turn up vivaciously to a party despite a crumbling marriage at home.
Against Ajax, Milan had to play with ten men for almost 70 minutes of the match after captain Riccardo Montolivo was sent off for a dangerous tackle on the odious Cristian Poulsen. But they somehow hung on for the point they needed, a testament to Ajax's jitters as much to their defence. You just knew it was inevitable that when Juventus exited the Champions League, and when it looked likely Napoli would as well, Milan would not squander the opportunity to somehow find a way through.
The implications for Napoli and Juventus, however, are significant. There is, of course, the financial dimension to be considered, and with UEFA's FFP rules starting to crystallize finally, Champions League prize money is now paramount even for the wealthier clubs--excluding, it seems, the likes of PSG who can inflate their revenues with comical sponsorship deals, but that is another matter.
For clubs whose owners have achieved a kind of fiscal equilibrium, a delicate balance between revenue and expenditure, it is no longer viable or desirable to buy and keep star players--the material evidence of the state of your books--at a loss. And that holds for clubs in Italy too. Gone are the days of paternal generosity a la Berlusconi and Moratti. As Juventus president Andrea Agnelli soberly admitted earlier this year, it would be difficult for even his club, reigning Italian champions and owners of a commercially successful, enviable stadium, to keep a player like Paul Pogba.
And so, unsurprisingly, after Juventus's group stage elimination at the hands of Galatasary in frigid and snowy Istanbul this past week, the Italian champions saw their stock fall 6%, and the prevailing opinion was that Juventus would offset the damage by offloading one of their star players next summer: most likely Pogba.
Italy also witnessed another one of its challengers, Napoli, eliminated at the Group Stage. Despite amassing 12 points and matching in tally Arsenal and last year's finalists Borussia Dortmund, Napoli went out because of goal difference, Marseille's literally cipher presence in the group, and Kevin Grosskreutz's hastily contrived shot from the edge of the area. It was heartbreaking as it was puzzling, but it was a reminder of the Champions League's periodic impassivity to even the most compelling of romances. The underdogs of the group, Napoli played wonderfully in Europe this season, imposing themselves on Dortmund and Arsenal, but all they have to show for it, seemingly, is a loss in revenue and pity.
Indeed, despite its gold and green, there is something unmistakably austere about the Champions League, and not just because of the financial ramifications for the aggrieved. Despite its tiny margins of success, the competition instigates the hugest conclusions.
The reaction in the Italian press was almost unanimous: Italian football was in crisis because only Milan had made it in to the next round, and that, too, by barely crawling their way to a draw against Ajax. But the reverse question, then, has to be inevitably asked: had all three representatives made it, would Italian football be in revival?
Last year there was talk of a German resurgence and domination, but it was predicated on the strength of only two of their clubs in Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. This year, Bayern Munich apart, German representation in the Champions League has looked beatable and has been beaten regularly. Yes, their four teams made it through, but that progress should also be contextualized in the competitiveness of their groups. Napoli were in the group of death, while Milan were in a group with Barcelona and the perennially awkward duo of Ajax and Celtic. Only Juventus deserve the inquest since they self-destructed against Copenhagen and Galatasary earlier, unnecessarily bloating the significance of their final game against the Turkish side in the wintry hell that was the Turk Telecom Arena.
|Benitez wants to win the Europa League with Napoli|
and refocus the importance of the Europa League and UEFA coefficient rankings in which Italy recently ceded their third spot to Germany. All five of Italy's representatives are still around in Europe, and one of Napoli, Fiorentina, Juventus and even Lazio can realistically win the Europa League. Crucially, Italy is currently well ahead of Portugal and France in the rankings of this year, and has three more teams left in Europe than either of the two.
Fiorentina coach Vincenzo Montella has openly talked about wanting to make the final of the Europa League, while Napoli coach Rafael Benitez said that he wants to win the trophy for a third time, after taking Valencia and Chelsea to triumph in the competition previously (the former when it was known as the UEFA Cup). Add to those proclamations the fact that the final of the competition this season will be in Juventus's stadium, and suddenly even the Bianconeri have ample motivation to try and go all the way.
For one or two of Italy's representatives to play the final would dramatically boost both the country's coefficient ranking and even the well-performing clubs' European ranking, which determines seeding in draws. Perhaps the financial rewards are less lucrative in the Europa League, but there is a lot for which to play.
Yet, in the symphony of despair, only Udinese coach Francesco Guidolin played cheerfully. "I actually think Italian football is growing," he chimed. "Especially when you consider the circumstances in which Napoli and Juventus went out."
But such measured responses are rare when it comes to talking about success and failure in the Champions League. Because of the enormous exposure it provides to all of Europe and beyond, the tournament sharply foregrounds our discomposed psychology and self-esteem issues--whether it be the manic elation in victory or the depression in defeat that prompts dramatic conclusions.
And so, finally, in keeping with our malady, don't be surprised if Milan win the Champions League this season.