Serie A needs Milan to succeed

TIM KEEBLE, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 12:10 PM ET

PHILADELPHIA -- In case you haven't noticed, Italian soccer is not exactly flourishing.

Yes, the national team won the World Cup four years ago, and Serie A side Inter Milan became the first Italian team to win the treble just last season.

But after a dismal showing at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa that saw the Azzurri fail to advance beyond the group stage, Italy's national team could be in for some rough times, which was reiterated by the fact that they could only manage a 2-1 comeback win over Estonia in the first match of Euro 2012 qualification.

On the domestic front, Inter's Champions League victory last season was a major achievement, but it also came without one single Italian player on the field during the final win over Bayern Munich.

Also, the man who guided the team to its historic season, manager Jose Mourinho, bolted for Real Madrid at the end of the season, citing his disgust for the Italian league as a major reason why.

The quality of play in the league as a whole has taken a dramatic turn for the worse, as La Liga in Spain as well as the English Premiership have both moved past Serie A, with Germany's Bundesliga closing fast in the rearview mirror.

It wasn't too long ago that powerhouse Italian teams like AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus were the envy of the European game.

Those teams routinely attracted the top talent, with players like Zinedine Zidane, Brazilian great Ronaldo, and Luis Figo among others coming to Italy to play in the world's finest league.

Top Italian talent like goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, striker Roberto Baggio and defender Paolo Maldini also starred on these loaded clubs, which were regular finalists in the Champions League.

From 1990 to 1999, either AC Milan or Juventus represented Italy in the final of Europe's premier club competition seven times in 10 years.

In 2003, Serie A put three teams in the semifinals, while Milan also reached the final in 2005 and won the competition in 2007.

But those days now seem like ages ago as the economic downturn has hit Italy particularly hard, making it difficult for even top teams like Inter, Milan and Juventus to attract top-end talent.

Now, teams like Barcelona, Manchester City and Real Madrid have their choice in the transfer market, while Italian sides wait to see what the leftovers look like.

The league itself has become extremely predictable in recent years as Inter has ruled Italy with an iron fist since the match-fixing scandal that relegated Juventus to Serie B.

Juve has not been the same team since its return to the top flight, while AC Milan has failed to live up to expectations, leaving Roma as the only side to seriously challenge Inter in league play.

And while the Nerazzurri has produced some good results in recent years, they have been criticized for their unappealing style of play, making it necessary for a new challenger to emerge from an underwhelming list of candidates.

Up until the end of August, Milan appeared to be a team headed for another top- three finish in the league, maybe a trip to the quarterfinals of the Champions League, and another season of having to look across town at Inter winning another title.

But things shifted in the final week of the transfer window, as the Rossoneri was able to land two impact players who were deemed to be surplus to needs at powerhouse clubs.

Milan used to be a club that had trouble figuring out how to get all of its talent on the field at the same time, but have recently benefited from the fact that Barcelona and Manchester City have that trouble.

Barca's signing of Valencia striker David Villa over the summer made Swedish forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic excess to requirements, allowing him to be snapped up on loan from the Spanish giants for a reasonable price.

Then there is Robinho, the talented but sometimes troubled attacker. He was so unhappy at City last season that he forced a loan move to Brazilian side Santos, and he was able to get his permanent move away from England for a little over $30 million, or nearly $20 million less than City paid for him.

The additions of Ibrahimovic and Robinho have now transformed Milan from a team that sometimes struggles to score goals into a team that possesses an array of talented attacking options, and one that could potentially add a dash of excitement to an otherwise drab Serie A campaign.

Milan can now boast an attack that includes Ibrahimovic, Robinho, Pato and Ronaldinho, making them a formidable challenge for any opposing defense.

Another thing that makes Milan attractive is the fact that - unlike Inter - the team includes a number of Italian players, like Alessandro Nesta, Andrea Pirlo, Massimo Ambrosini and Gennaro Gattuso.

The financial situation in Italy is not getting any better, and it is about to get much worse with Serie A potentially losing a Champions League place to the Bundesliga, and the millions of dollars that go along with it.

Werder Bremen's win over Sampdoria in a two-legged playoff in Champions League qualification ensured Italy of only three teams in this year's competition, while Germany also has three.

And as long as German sides like Bayern Munich and Schalke don't completely collapse in the group stage, it looks as though Serie A will need not only Inter to make a deep run in the competition, but also for Milan to have success as well.

Losing a Champions League place would be a big blow to an already reeling league, as well as to one of the premier soccer countries in the world.

The situation in Italy is not good at the moment, but Milan is equipped to help try and turn things back in the right direction.


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