Internazionale travel to Munich with a deficit tonight, in a tie that represents the shifting hierarchy of European football. Despite Inter's triumph in last year's final, the fortunes of Italian sides in the Champions League have sufficiently declined for Serie A to lose its fourth representative in the 2012-13 competition. That privilege will be awarded instead to the Bundesliga, as Uefa's co-efficient recognises the German league to be the third strongest in Europe.
The evidence backs up Uefa's decision. Even on the most cursory of glances, the quality of the Italian elite is not what it once was. Milan, currently five points clear at the top of Serie A, were knocked out of the Champions League by Tottenham Hotspur, in fifth position in the Premier League and 12 points short of leaders Manchester United.
To take a broader view, Inter are the one remaining Italian team in the competition. Last year, they were the only Italian side to reach the quarter-finals. Not one made the last eight the previous season. In 2008, only Roma progressed that far and no further. Should Inter fail to conquer at the Allianz Arena this evening, that will leave a record of two Italian quarter-finalists in the last four years of the competition. Playing away in Europe after losing at home is famously difficult, and they will have to do so without the injured Lucio, Diego Milito and Thiago Motta.
Of course, these arguments cannot avoid the fact that the reigning European champions are an Italian side. But there is a strong sense that last year's victory was thanks to the gracious intervention of Jose Mourinho, rather than the enduring strength of the club. Under Mourinho's predecessor Roberto Mancini, Inter failed in Europe despite three consecutive Scudetti; Mancini twice reached the quarter-finals and then twice failed in the last 16. Mourinho replaced him, brought in his own players and in the following season he did what no Inter manager since Helenio Herrera had done. Inter have some excellent players, certainly, but it is hard to imagine their winning the trophy last year without their Portuguese coach.
The quality of its players further displays the fall of the Italian league from Europe's apex. Serie A has no one to match the talent of Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Xavi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Moreover, its two best players, Wesley Sneijder and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, tried to make the grade at the Spanish giants but failed to do so. There are fascinating younger players in Italy: Alexis Sanchez, Milos Krasic Edinson Cavani and Javier Pastore, but if they are to justify their gifts, and win the Champions League, they may well have to do so in Spain or England.
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