Champions League: English teams too strong for Italy

LIVERPOOL may have edged past Inter Milan by the narrowest of margins, but the hard work had already been done in the San Siro stadium two weeks earlier. Although over the two legs, Inter played well, even their best wasn’t enough to overcome a Liverpool side that is currently full of confidence and has its eyes on another Champions League title.

On paper – hard currency, that is – Liverpool should be better than Inter, but the Nerazzurri are the Italian champions and they have some outstanding performers in their squad. The harsh reality for the likes of Inter is that English clubs are now too strong for most of their European peers and it is not out of the question that the last eight could include four Premier Leaguers.

There was a time when Italian clubs were feared by English participants in the European Cup and latterly, the Champions League. England’s top sides just couldn’t remove Italy’s clubs from the competition. It wasn’t until 1998-99 that an English club overcome an Italian counterpart from the European Cup/Champions League in the knockout phase. Up until that season, Manchester United, Ipswich Town, Everton, Liverpool, Derby and Aston Villa had all fallen foul of Serie A’s representatives. Sometimes, the games involving teams from England and Italy would come with a dose of controversy, such as Liverpool’s semi-final exit at the hands of Helenio Herrera’s Inter in 1965 and the defeat of Derby, managed by Brian Clough in Turin. The ultra-professionalism of Italian clubs in the 1960s and 1970s often upset the English.

The days when Italian clubs were the last people you wanted to meet have, to a certain degree, gone, although Serie A still has plenty of talent and some well-drilled sides. But from a financial perspective, clubs are carrying a lot of debt and have been making huge losses during the pandemic. This makes them less competitive when it comes to attracting the very best players. In the 2021-22 Champions League, English and Italian teams have clashed eight times and the scorecard is 5-2 to the Premier with one draw.

There are certain similarities between the Premier and Serie A. Over the past five years, seven teams have filled the top six places in Italy (Juve, Inter, Milan, Napoli, Lazio, Atalanta and Roma), while in England, eight teams have made places one to six (City, United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, Leicester and West Ham). For Juve in Italy, there’s Manchester City in England, for Atalanta, read Leicester or West Ham. For Tottenham and Arsenal, you’ve got the Milans and Romans. Both leagues have another 20 clubs who have either flitted in and out of the top flight or spend their time avoiding relegation.

The financial differences are significant and are driven primarily by broadcasting revenues, with the Premier so far ahead of the rest of the world. While the current TV deal for the Premier is £ 4.8 billion over three years, Serie A’s most recent agreement is € 2.8 billion over the same timespan.

 In addition, club ownership has become a competitive differentiator for the Premier, with wealthy business people attracted to the UK and the economic potential of its football. Italy has now ventured down this path after being largely owned by Italian business and families, but this has also come with problems, as witnessed at Inter Milan and their Chinese owner Suning. US investors have also become quite interested in Italy and seven current members of Serie A now have US shareholders. Parma, in Serie B, has 99% US ownership.

In the 21st century, Premier League clubs have performed better than Serie A in the Champions League. There have been five winners and eight finalists from England, while Italy has won the competition three times and provided four runners-up. The last winner of the Champions League from Serie A was Inter Milan in 2010, while two of the last three have come from the Premier, Liverpool in 2019 and Chelsea in 2021.

While the club scene seems set for a period of English dominance, the national teams, who met in the European Championship final last year, have very different records. Since 2000, Italy have won the World Cup (2006) and Euros (2020) and finished runners-up in the Euros in 2000 and 2012. England, by contrast, have won nothing since 1966. It would be easy to blame the lack of international success on the cosmopolitan Premier League – Liverpool’s team that won through against Inter included three English players – but Serie A has a higher rate of expatriates, 63.8% versus 59.6% (source: CIES). England and Italy are the two biggest importers of players by some distance.

Inter Milan went the same way as AC Milan and Atalanta, but Juventus are still involved and should make it through to the last eight. Meanwhile, Liverpool and Manchester City are in the quarter-finals and Chelsea and Manchester United have a good chance of joining them. There’s a good chance one of the four may come up against Juventus, which will reignite the rivalry between Italian and English clubs.

Despite debt and losses, Serie A is Europe’s most exciting title contest

THE 2021-22 Italian title race promises to be one of the more interesting in Europe as four teams slug it out at the top of Serie A. Italian clubs have suffered during the pandemic, running up big losses and carrying large amounts of debt, but on the pitch, the campaign is shaping up nicely.

AC Milan reminded everyone they are back in the mix with an exciting 2-1 win against Inter Milan at the San Siro, thanks to a late burst from Olivier Giroud, who scored two goals after Inter led from the first half. Milan’s victory ended a 14-game unbeaten run for Inter. It was only the Nerazzuri’s second league defeat of the campaign. But this was not the ideal preparation for Inter’s next game which is a gruelling trip to Napoli on February 12. This is a six-pointer if ever there was one for Napoli are in second place and one point behind Inter, who have a game in hand. 

However, victory for Luciano Spalletti’s team will put pressure on Simone Inzaghi at Inter and also get people talking about a possible Napoli scudetto. It’s now 32 years since Diego Maradona’s team won Serie A for the second time in a four-year period between 1987 and 1990. Napoli strengthened their bid with a 2-0 win at Venezia’s Stadio Pier Luigi Penzo on the banks of the Venice lagoon. 

They were boosted by the return of Victor Osimhen, who cost the club € 70 million when he joined from Lille in 2020. Osimhen, just 23, has been hampered by injury and illness since arriving in Naples and the Venezia game was his first since November. He headed Napoli ahead and prompted coach Spalletti to urge his players to play to the strengths of the big Nigerian striker.

Milan’s win was their first in Serie A this season against the challengers and they have a vital clash on March 6 in Naples. They did well to recover from a first half in which Inter dominated and took the lead. It was a vital turnaround because a defeat would have put seven points between the two Milanese clubs. 

The mood at Milan is definitely in the ascendancy, not just on the field but also behind the scenes. The club’s financial performance, while still concerning, has improved significantly with revenues in 2020-21 climbing by 40% to € 241 million and losses down from € 192 million to € 92 million. The club has net debts of € 101 million. The recovery of Milan was always going to take time, but there are green shoots emerging.

The only real downer in 2021-22 for Milan has been their early exit in the Champions League, but with Liverpool, Atlético Madrid and Porto in their group, it was no great surprise to see them struggle.

While Milan have reasons to be cheerful, Inter’s financial position is still worrying because of the problems faced by their owner, Suning of China. Inter not only lost € 240 million, but their net debt increased by 16% and their wage-to-income ratio was up to 74%. On top of that, they lost coach Antonio Conte and star striker Romelu Lukaku. The Chelsea striker has, quite bizarrely, been making noises about returning to Italy and has been pictured wearing an Inter shirt. Inter have been playing good football and the signing of veteran target man Edin Džeko, Lukaku’s cut-price replacement, has proved to be successful.

Inter’s wage bill is around € 100 million more than their San Siro stable-mates, but Juventus remain the biggest payers in Italy with wages almost hitting the € 300 million mark. Juventus have had a difficult campaign, welcoming back Max Allegri after the departure of Andrea Pirlo and were still coming to terms with the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo earlier in the season. But if there is to be a surprise in the title race, it will surely come from Juve, who may have just made a transformational signing.

Despite making a huge loss in 2020-21 (€ 210 million) and carrying net debt of € 389 million, Juventus were busy in the January transfer window. The much sought-after Dušan Vlahović was signed from Fiorentina for € 70 million and the Serbian striker took just 13 minutes to score on his debut for his new club against Verona. Swiss central midfielder Denis Zakaria, signed from Borussia Mönchengladbach, also scored in his first game.

Juve are unbeaten in 10 league games and are still in the Champions League. They may be eight points behind leaders Inter, but positive momentum is building. Stefano Pioli, the Milan coach, believes Inter and Juve have the strongest squads and nobody is prepared to write off the Turin club.

At this stage, Juve appear to have too much to do, but they have the experience and resources to make a second half bid for the title. It isn’t in their own hands, but they know how to string together long sequences of wins that brush aside rivals. Watch this space, because it will be worth watching in the coming weeks.

AC Milan in all their glory: Arrigo Sacchi’s inside story of “The Immortals”.

THERE’S A lot of so-called “inside stories” that are nothing but cut-and-paste reports that while being interesting are usually penned by outsiders. Clubs, managers, players rarely provide genuine insight about anything, firstly because when they leave a club, they do not scorch the earth and if they are sacked, they have, doubtless, signed a non-disclosure agreement. So when a book comes along that does actually provide some insight into spectacular success, it has to be read.

Arrigo Sacchi was the mastermind of the AC Milan team that won the Europan Cup in 1989 and 1990. Furthermore, he is considered an innovator who created a fluid style of football built around 4-4-2 that was not only effective but extremely entertaining. Milan had a team of outstanding players, including Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Carlo Ancelotti, Paulo Maldini, Franco Baresi and Frank Rijkaard. They won Serie A in 1988 at a time when Italian domestic football was awash with stars like Diego Maradona, it was the most admired league at the time and arguably provided the blueprint for England’s Premier League.

Sacchi’s book, The Immortals, tells the story of the 1988-89 season when Milan won the European Cup, beating Steaua Bucharest in the final by 4-0. 

Sacchi was a coach confident in his own ability, but there’s no arrogance about him, he was well aware that poor results made him vulnerable. His approach started with intense training and he sometimes comments in the book that he “killed” his team with his exhaustive sessions. He also documented every move in his diaries, from the type of training adopted each week to reviews on the performance of his team.

The book reveals a lot and shatters some myths, but it also gives a very different view on certain individuals. Ruud Gullit sounds like a somewhat fragile player, prone to niggling injuries, Marco van Basten comes across as high maintenance and occasionally difficult but Frank Rijkaard seems a decent individual with strong values. Of course, this is Sacchi’s view and you have to bear in mind, these players were interacting with their boss.

Similarly, Sacchi’s opinion of Silvio Berlusconi contrasts with how people see the former Milan owner. Sacchi seems to admire his employer and portrays him as an inspirational leader in many ways.

The 1988-89 season saw Milan lose their league title to Inter, but their European Cup run was full of drama. Their meeting with Red Star Belgrade, which lasted longer than usual because the second leg in Belgrade was abandoned due to fog, includes a meeting with the notorious Želijko Ražnatović, better known as Arkan, who walked across the pitch with a tiger on a leash. Milan won through and played Real Madrid in the semi-finals, beating them 5-0 in the second leg, a result Berlusconi had requested the day before the game.

Sacchi had just one word to describe the performance of Milan in the final in Barcelona against 1986 winners Steaua, “fantastic”. It was one of the most comprehensive performances in a European Cup final, with two goals apiece from Gullit and van Basten.

The book leaves you wanting more as this is only part of the story, Milan won the cup again in 1990 and they dominated the competition in that period, winning again in 1994, although Sacchi was managing Italy by then after leaving Milan in 1991. 

Milan of that period created a benchmark which the club and Italian football have struggled to live up to. Sacchi, one of key figures in that story, is worth listening to.

The Immortals is published by Backpage.