Italian teams must produce in Champions League
Tim Keeble, Soccer Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The Italian Serie A has been known for years as the most technical league in the world, a place where the most skilled players go to play for tradition-rich clubs like AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus.
However, Italy's top-flight league has developed another reputation over the past few years, one not nearly as flattering.
The league enjoyed a great spell of play in the European Cup or Champions League from 1989-1998, when it placed at least one team in the final of the competition in nine of the 10 years.
But the past 11 campaigns have not been quite as successful, with just four teams reaching the final, including an all-Italian affair in 2003 when AC Milan faced Juventus.
In short, Serie A sides have underachieved in the Champions League over the past decade, which is very telling considering the profile of the league as a whole has dipped during that same time period.
After failing to produce a finalist during a four-year stretch from 1999-2002, Italy put three teams in the last four of the competition in 2003, including two teams in the final.
Serie A sides have underachieved in the Champions League over the past decade.
However, that was just a brief resurgence, as the next six years have seen Milan reach the final twice, with no other Serie A team really coming close.
No Italian side advanced past the first knockout round of the competition last season, with just one reaching the quarterfinals the year before.
England, meanwhile, has accounted for six of the past eight semifinalists over the last two years, while Spain's Barcelona has won two of the last four Champions League titles.
So why is it that Serie A teams have had such a hard time in Europe's premier club competition recently?
For one, the global economic crisis has hit Serie A harder than leagues in Spain and England.
Italian teams can simply not compete with the kind of money that top Spanish teams like Real Madrid and Barcelona can give out, while English sides like Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool are also way ahead financially.
Serie A was second to none in terms of talent in the 1990's, with seven of the 10 FIFA World Player of the Year winners coming from Italian teams.
However, the league has produced only three of the past nine winners, further illustrating its diminishing drawing power.
The league's top player the past few years, Kaka, was lured away from Milan by Real Madrid's considerably deeper pockets this past summer, while Milan has had to rely on past-their-prime players like Ronaldinho and David Beckham to help replace his production.
Money has something to do with the recent poor results, but the simple fact is that Italian teams, outside of AC Milan, have failed to rise to the occasion when matched up with top sides from other leagues.
And there is a good chance that this year won't be any different.
Current Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini won back-to-back Serie A titles with Inter Milan, and was then fired for failing to produce in the Champions League.
Jose Mourinho replaced Mancini before last season, and he too won the league title. But like Mancini, Mourinho saw his side go out of the Champions League before reaching the quarterfinals.
This season doesn't figure to get much easier, with Mourinho's Inter set to face his former club, Chelsea, whom he guided to consecutive Premiership titles in 2005 and 2006.
Inter appears to be on its way to another league title, but if they get bounced again in the first knockout round, how much patience would the Inter brass show with the abrasive "Special One"?
AC Milan has been the one Italian side that has carried the banner for the league this decade, reaching three finals and winning two of them.
Unfortunately for the Rossoneri, they have drawn Manchester United in the next round, a team that has reached the past two finals.
Milan is also operating under the inexperienced Leonardo as manager, with former boss Carlo Ancelotti leaving for Chelsea over the summer.
Fiorentina is the other team from Serie A in the last 16, but they will go into their contest with Bayern Munich as underdogs, with their recent form indicating anything but success against the German giants.
Juventus has been a huge disappointment since returning to the top flight following a match-fixing scandal that saw the club relegated to Serie B.
The Turin club failed to advance past the group stage despite needing only three points from its last two games to go through, leaving Serie A with only three teams left.
The fact that Italy's top two teams will be facing England's best two in this round offers up a chance for the league to gain a measure of redemption.
Now, all they have to do is produce the necessary results.