The glory that was Serie A may have faded - but beware

Italy's giants may fail this time, but they are getting a new act together, says Rory Smith

In his desperation, in the transparency of his shallow plea, Silvio Berlusconi laid bare the privations afflicting Italian football's impoverished core.

The media mogul, erstwhile leader of his nation and continuing owner of Milan, had been asked to summarise the choice facing that footballing nomad Carlos Tevez.

"Milan," Berlusconi intoned, of his team, "represent prestige. Paris St-Germain," he said of the Argentine's other suitors, "represent Qatar, and economic benefits."

This is Milan, and this is Italy, in the dying days of 2011, reduced to pleading history as a counterweight to penury. There is no more backward-looking league in all of Europe than Serie A. There is a lingering glamour attached to its household names, but the lustre has faded, through years of neglect. It has the air of a screen siren, blissful in the ignorance of a beauty ravaged by age. It is a league that has nowhere to look but to the glorious past, to think of what was, what might have been, to seek comfort in the gossamer shroud of the past.

There is no solace in the present, and seemingly even less in the future. True, three sides may have made it to the last 16 of the Champions League – Internazionale, for all their domestic travails, will be altogether more confident of seeing off Marseilles than Napoli will Chelsea, or Milan Arsenal, come February – but the damage is already done. This is little more than a last stand.

From next season, Serie A will cede its fourth Champions League slot to the resurgent Bundesliga. The league will no longer stand among the privileged elite. Uefa, European football's ultimate rating agency, downgraded Italy some time ago.

Since the golden age, it has been a remarkable fall. Only Inter's unprecedented treble in 2010, engineered by Jose Mourinho, has provided a cushion. It was a placebo, not a cure; Mourinho knew it. He constructed a side built for today, not for tomorrow, full of players at, or past, their peak, and looked to his rhetoric to urge them into the fray once more. Serie A simply will not let go: as Inter conquered Europe with a team of thirtysomethings, so their domestic rivals have looked to cling on to the last vestiges of the past. There is no more prolific goalscorer in Italy than Antonio Di Natale. He is 34. Take Hernan Crespo, Francesco Totti, Miroslav Klose – all are still playing amid the ruins.

That policy is largely practical, of course: there is simply no money in Italian football, not any more. The largest single outlay on any player this summer was Napoli's purchase of Gokhan Inler, the Swiss midfielder, from Udinese, for £13m. Clubs can no longer buy world-class stars. Instead, they have a choice: repair and protect the ageing models who remain, or accept flawed versions.

That is why Milan – as well as Juventus – are so desperate for Tevez, but only on loan. Should they land him, they will add him to a squad including Robinho, Antonio Cassano, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. When the divine is unattainable, a fallen angel will suffice.

And yet to cast Serie A as a dying league could not be further from the truth. In the shadows, the first stirrings of rebirth are emerging. "It is only a little bit better than it used to be," says Sky Italia's respected commentator, Massimo Marianella. "And if Napoli and Milan lose, it will be the same as it ever was. But we have some good managers. They do not have the same economic power, so they have to change ideas."

And so Walter Mazzarri, blessed with the triumvirate of Marek Hamsik, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani, all acquired well below their market value, has honed a counter-attacking 3-4-1-2 formation. Francesco Guidolin's high-flying Udinese play 3-4-3. Antonio Conte, manager of the league leaders Juventus, plays 4-2-4, and has a squad boasting seven strikers. At Milan,Massimiliano Allegri favours a free-flowing 4-3-3. Luis Enrique was brought in at Roma to implement the Barcelona model.

In the years of plenty, Serie A was uniform, sterile. Not any more: on the pitch, and off it, there is an air of dynamism, of change. Juventus, this summer, opened a newly constructed stadium which they own, hugely boosting their match-day revenue. Many of their peers are keen to follow suit. Last year, the 20 elite clubs formed a breakaway from the rest of the country's league structure and sold their television rights collectively, hoping to ape the success of the Premier League model. For now, Italy continues to cling to its past. Soon, perhaps, it will trade on its future.

The Last 16

Lyons (Fr) v APOEL (Cyp)

Napoli (It) v Chelsea (Eng)

Milan (It) v Arsenal (Eng)

Basle (Swit) v Bayern Munich (Ger)

B Leverkusen (Ger) v Barcelona (Sp)

CSKA (Rus) v Real Madrid (Sp)

Zenit (Rus) v Benfica (Por)

Marseilles (Fr) v Internazionale (It)

First legs to be played 14-15 and 21-22 February.

Second legs to be played 6-7 and 13-14 March.

London's Italian Job

Milan v Arsenal: 15 February, San Siro, 6 March, Emirates Stadium

Wingers may expose rough edges of San Siro diamond

Milan tend to play a narrow diamond midfield, which puts emphasis on the full-backs to provide width, but can leave them exposed to opposing wingers. Mark van Bommel is the holding midfielder, the rest of the central quartet look to get forward to support a front pairing which, when Robinho is preferred to Alexandre Pato, offers rather more inspiration than perspiration. Zlatan Ibrahimovic extended his terrible record against English opposition in the recent Wembley international with Sweden, but Arsenal will recall he scored twice against them at the Emirates for Barcelona two seasons ago.

Travelling in style

18: In the 18 Champions League matches played between Arsenal and Italian teams, the club have won nine, drawn five, and lost four

2: Arsenal have won both games in the competition they have played at San Siro, 5-1 versus Internazionale in 2003, and 2-0 against AC Milan in 2008.

3: Arsenal have progressed every time they have faced Italian opposition in the Champions League knock-out stages, most recently beating Roma on penalties to reach the quarter-finals in 2009.

Napoli v Chelsea: 21 February, San Paolo Stadium, 14 March, Stamford Bridge

Chelsea must steer clear of speed trap

Napoli frustrated Manchester City with their deep-lying five-man defence. They are well organised and difficult to pass through. Napoli's game-plan involves sitting deep, sucking the opposition forward before hitting them with their remarkable pace on the counter-attack. There are few teams in Europe who break as quickly, or as dangerously, as Napoli. The front three of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Marek Hamsik and Edinson Cavani are fast, gifted and smart players who know each other's games. If John Terry and David Luiz are not careful, they could rip through and do devastating damage.

Form Figures

11: English clubs have won 11 of the last 13 two-legged ties in the Champions League against Italian teams.

1: Chelsea have won only one of six games in the competition away in Italy – 4-0 in a group match at Lazio in November 2003, the killer third goal at Stadio Olimpico scored by striker Eidur Gudjohnsen.

12: Chelsea have won only four of 12 Champions League fixtures against Italian opposition. In the other eight they have drawn four and lost four.

Suggested Topics
footballHe started just four months ago
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Streets ahead: Venice
travelWhat's trending on your wishlist?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect