Serie A clubs look to redress European balance of power

BY foxsports • December 21, 2009

The story of this Champions League draw could well be a story of comebacks.

Jose Mourinho makes his return to Chelsea, David Beckham to Manchester United, and Karim Benzema to Lyon; these are the stories that will dominate the next round.

Yet beyond the more emotional stories of the draw, from a real footballing perspective, the draw presents a massive opportunity for Serie A to readdress the position it finds itself in.

Not so long ago it was Serie A, not La Liga or the Premier League, that was the dominant league in European football. Notwithstanding perhaps its pinnacle, with the great AC Milan and Juventus team's of the early to mid '90s.

This is where the greatest players—Zinedine Zidane, Patrick Kluivert, and Gabriel Batistuta, et al.—simply headed straight for Serie A without giving the Premier League so much as a passing glance.

As recently as 2003, the Champions League final was contested by AC Milan and Juventus, and the big spenders in European football were not the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City, but the established Italian elite of Lazio, bankrolled to the point of collapse by Sergio Cragnotti, Juventus, Roma, AC Milan, and Inter.

Yet lately Italian football has found itself in the unusual position of third place in the footballing hierarchy as a resurgent La Liga and Premier League, flushed with fresh cash and wider audiences have relegated Serie A to a sideshow, where once it was the headline act.

Nothing represents this more than the recent performances in Europe's premier league competition. In the first 10 years of the Champions League, Italian clubs were victorious four times, while they reached the final seven times, culminating in the clash between AC Milan and Juventus.

Yet, in the six years since, only Milan have managed to win the title, and indeed reach the final. While English and Spanish clubs have featured regularly, and have won seven of the last 10 finals, demonstrating their dominance of Europe's premier competition.

Last season no Italian team reached the semifinal stage in the competition, and Roma and Inter Milan were knocked out by English opponents in the second round stage.

But now two of Italy's finest once more find themselves facing up to two of their English rivals in two of the more intriguing Champions League second-round encounters, with a real chance to test themselves against their English cousins and to strike a blow for the cause of Serie A.

Jose Mourinho's return to Chelsea with Inter Milan makes a wonderful story, and for the journalists and headline writers, the "Special One" makes wonderful copy. Yet this is an Inter Milan team who have ruled the roost in Serie A for the last four seasons, and have done so with ease.

Yet one of the reason's for Mourinho's arrival at Inter Milan was to help the club claim their first European Cup since the glorious days of Helenio Herrara, when they last won the title 1965. Yet last season's poor performances against Manchester United, and an underwhelming group campaign topped off by an anemic 2-0 defeat against Barcelona, have the pressure firmly on Mourinho.

Yet that is arguably when Mourinho, ever the showman, is at his most dangerous. A return to his former club could help galvanise a capable Inter Milan team, containing dangerous players like Julio Cesar, Lucio, Maicon, Wesley Sneijder, Samuel Eto'o, and the talented, but temperamental, Mario Balotelli.

Mourinho will be no better than most of the quality residents on this Chelsea team, but John Terry, Frank Lampard, and Didier Drogba all blossomed from nearly-men into the champions they are today, because of his work. Chelsea also have him to thank for the arrivals of key players Michael Essien and Ashley Cole.

Meanwhile for AC Milan, for so long the sole flag bearers for Serie A in the Champions League and the last Italian winners in 2007, the story is very different. If anything, the pressure is less on Leonardo, a club legend who is slowly but surely learning the management trade in his first season.

After the toughest of managerial debuts, including a dispiriting 1-0 defeat to minnows FC Zurich, Leonardo has restored some manner of normality at the Rossoneri.

Currently sitting in second in Serie A, Leonardo has managed to galvanise some impressive performances from the likes of Ronaldinho, Alessandro Nesta, Marco Borriello, and Clarence Seedorf.

The return of David Beckham may be headline news in the context of the tie, yet he must first break into the Milan team—such is the level of competition.

Whether it will be enough up against Manchester United, whose record in the competition over the past two years is peerless and who have a blend of ability and experience rarely matched across Europe, is another thing.

United have plenty to prove in Europe after last season's defeat against Barcelona and the summer departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, but enter the tie as favourites to progress.

Their last defeat to an Italian club came at the hands of a Kaka-inspired Milan team. While the Brazilian may have since departed, a number of that team remain and will be buoyed by that success.

While the comeback stories of Mourinho and Beckham to the haunts of their former glories will dominate the headlines, the real story could be the comeback of Italian football.

Though victories for Inter Milan and AC Milan won't return Italian football to its former glory, it could be the start of a redressing of Europe's balance of power.

Alex Stamp is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, the open source sports network.

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