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

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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.