Europa League. The tournament everyone loves to mock. The one that means a side just hasn't quite made it. A place for strong countries to send their weak teams for a bit of European experience.
For the past few seasons, Italy hasn't taken Europa League very seriously. But with their Uefa coefficient slipping, and their sides' poor performances in the Champions League, the FIGC would be wise to consider prompting Serie A clubs to do their best in the tournaments. And for fans who want Serie A to be a powerhouse once more - and to have four places in the Champions League - mocking Europa should be set aside.
Uefa's country coefficient determines the number of slots each football federation receives for Europe. The 2011-2012 season marked out Italy's decline: that year, the peninsula got just three Champions League places, and Germany got four. It was a consequence of 2009-2010, which marked five years of decline for Serie A sides performing in Europe. Uefa use the results of the last five European seasons to determine a country's coefficient, so there's no use pointing to one poor year as the reason Italy have fewer European slots.
For both European competitions, Uefa awards two points for a win and one point for a draw. Clubs that reach the quarter-finals, semi-finals, or final of either tournament get an additional bonus point. There are four points for the group stage of the Champions League and five points for the knockout round. The total number of points is then divided by the number of clubs each association has playing in Europe (for Italy, that number is six).
Italy earned 15.428 points in 2009-2010, 14.416 in 2012-2013, and less than 12 points in the two intervening seasons. The country is currently on 12.5 points, while Germany is at 13.7. It seems that gap could be overcome, but just how many more points can Italy collect this season?
(To make things easier, we'll put Italy on 75 points currently, which is the number they'd have without dividing by six)
With Juventus and Fiorentina facing off, that's at least two more points for Italy (a draw + a bonus for moving to the quarters). Let's be bold, though, and assume that Italy will collect three points, with one of those sides collecting a win next week.
If Napoli, then, manage to beat Porto at the San Paolo next week, that's an additional three points. We're up to 81 for Italy, and we've just now reached the quarter finals of Europa.
With a favorable draw, the Italian sides in the quarters could collect a total of eight points, if both sides win both legs. They then each get a bonus for making it to the semis - so we're now at 91 points.
Again, assuming all goes well and Napoli and Juve/Fiorentina don't face each other, it's ten more points for wins over both legs + a bonus for making it to the Europa League final. When an Italian side wins that game, we've made it to 103 points for Italy.
103/6 = 17.7, a highly respectable total, one that's just .2 off what Germany held last season, when Bayern and Dortmund squared off in the Champions League final.
Of course, it's highly unlikely that two Italian sides will make it to the Europa League final, having remained perfect for their final four ties. But the point remains: A deep run does wonders for the coefficient, which is essential to closing the current fifteen point gap on Germany. For those who want to see Italy holding four Champions League places once more, taking Europa seriously can have as much of an impact as making it to the group stages of the Champions League.
It's helped that this season, Serie A sides haven't discarded Europe's secondary tournament. What should be feared is clubs qualifying that have no desire to use Europa either to gain experience or to help Italy progress. Udinese, for example, failed to make it past the playoff round this season. Because points are halved in qualifying and playoff rounds, the wins over Široki Brijeg and the draw with Slovan Liberec added a paltry 1.5 points to Italy's total. The zebrette contributed just 4 points last season when falling out of the Champions League, compared to Napoli's 6 and Lazio's 19 from Europa alone.
Currently, Fiorentina, Inter Milan and Parma are set for Europa. We know the viola will take it seriously - we're seeing that this season. Parma, absent from Europe from over ten years, would give it their all, and their unknown quality might help them make a deep run - although the loss of manager Roberto Donadoni could hurt them. As for the nerazzurri, well, Walter Mazzarri surely didn't care about the tournament when in charge of Napoli, but it remains to be seen if he'll be given another season at Inter.
The point? Europa League, in addition to being great fun at times (did you see the second half of Porto-Napoli?) actually serves a purpose. So many fans of Serie A also have a deep pride and respect for Italy, and want to see the league do well on a national stage. The Europa tournament not only gives teams a place to shine in the current moment, but sets the groundwork for making Serie A strong once more.