Italians poised to deliver European knockout blow

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There is a great tendency to over-dramatise matters affecting football in England, but the reality is that three clubs face a European date with destiny tonight and tomorrow.

Anything but a win by two clear goals at Olympiakos will put Arsenal into the Europa League. Anything but a win at Wolfsburg opens up the potential for PSV Eindhoven to leapfrog Manchester United. Anything but a victory for Chelsea at home to Porto means they could also exit the competiton.

It is not just the immediate impact that could damage the game. Football in this country is sleepwalking towards a drop in qualification numbers, not least in the Champions League.

Italy’s huge improvement in European competition, exmplified by Juventus reaching the final against Barcelona last season, means that England’s fourth Champions League spot is under threat. No side from the Premier League went further than final 16 last season. Chelsea, who won the Premier League at a canter, were eliminated by a Paris Saint Germain side that lost 5-1 on aggregate to Barcelona in the following round.

Teams from Serie A also tend to take the Europa League seriously. Napoli and Fiorentina both reached the semi-finals last term. Everton were the only representatives from England in the last 16, while Italy had five, the two sides that reached the semi-finals plus Torino, Inter Milan and Roma.

That puts England’s club coefficient dangerously close to Italy’s. England are on 69.659, Italy on 66.605.

The number is averaged out over the last five seasons, and with the two countries so close, failure for English clubs again this season threatens that coveted fourth spot. The top four would become the top three, and Europe would become a distant dream for a lot of clubs.

There does not even seem to be much consideration that this is a possibility.

How have we reached this point?

The notion of finishing in the top four being more important than success in Europe once it has been reached has been a particular issue.

Take Liverpool last season. It appears certain that they would have taken a fourth-place finish in their group and elimination from Europe in exchange for fourth spot in the Premier League. They played a weakened side away to Real Madrid in order to keep players fresh for the league, where they were struggling.

Brendan Rodgers said at the time: “I think we’ve got a strong team out. We’re certainly not forfeiting the game,” but any casual observer could tell they had left out key players. Steven Gerrard spent 70 minutes of the game on the bench.

It was a rare occurrence, but an attitude that was copied prior to Arsenal’s shock victory against Bayern Munich. There was already talk, after two games lost, that the Gunners should seek elimination in order to better gird themselves for a title challenge.

In fact, fourth place has almost become more coveted than the reward it carries, which means the league is afforded priority over Europe, both in the Champions League and Europa League.

Another mitigating factor is the intensity with which Premier League sides have to approach each game compared to their European counterparts.

The rise of Leicester this season demonstrates the old maxim that there are ‘no easy games’ in the English top flight.

And this past weekend reinforced it – only Arsenal, of the teams in the Champions League, managed to win their game, beating Sunderland 3-1.

Competitively, top to bottom, it is the best league in the world.

Compare this to Italy, where top Serie A teams can visit Verona, Carpi or Frosinone almost guaranteed of victory. It helps them manage fatigue.

There is also the issue of the doubling up of domestic trophies. Only England, of the top four nations in Europe, have two cup competitions that involve every side in the top flight.

The League Cup can lead to prolonged spells of midweek matches, making it difficult to manage rotation correctly.

In the last fortnight Liverpool have had to play on both weekends and twice in midweek, in the cup and the Europa League, which could explain their tired display against Newcastle.

The sides chasing fourth spot this season can only hope and pray that the three sides do the country justice in Europe over the next two days. If not, the Premier League will be facing an issue it could not have anticipated only a few years ago.