Italian Pride Clinging to Champions League Hopes


The battered pride of football mad Italians is now hanging on precarious Champions League ambitions less than a month after the country's humiliating World Cup exit.

The chances of last season's runners-up Juventus and Serie A rivals Napoli and Roma reaching the knockout stages go down to the wire in this week's final round of action.

Four-time winners Italy exited the World Cup prematurely for the first time in 60 years leading to a period akin to national mourning.

Now the progress of Italian clubs to the knockout rounds of the elite European trophy, which they have held aloft 12 times -- Inter Milan  winning their last title in 2010 -- is still uncertain.

Juventus -- runners-up twice in the last three seasons  -- would have expected to qualify when they were drawn in Group D alongside Barcelona, Sporting Lisbon and Olympiakos, but they head to Athens on Tuesday still needing a win to progress. 

A draw or even defeat would be sufficient for the six-time defending Serie A champions unless Sporting Lisbon beat Barcelona at the Camp Nou.

Napoli no longer control their own fate as they sit third in Group F before Wednesday's trip to play last-place Feyenoord.

Maurizio Sarri's side need to win in the Netherlands and hope Manchester City beat Shakhtar to finish second on a superior head-to-head record.

Roma -- second in Group C -- also need to win against Azerbaijan minnows Qarabag to progress along with Chelsea, with Atletico Madrid still in with a chance if they win at Stamford Bridge.

Italian clubs' problems in the elite European competition in which they will have a fourth spot next season mirrors their national struggles.

- Italy at a crossroads -

Italy failed to reach the World Cup for the first time since 1958 after losing their play-off at the San Siro to Sweden 1-0 on aggregate on November 13.

Coach Giampiero Ventura was sacked and federation president Carol Tavecchio quickly followed. But there is a widespread feeling the problems go deeper.

The 74-year-old Tavecchio was seen a symbol of the Italian gerontocracy. 

Ex-Roma midfielder Damiano Tommasi, the 43-year-old head of the Italian Players' Union, who has been touted as a possible replacement for Tavecchio, has said aging federation bosses who are treating the sport as a business are the root of football's problems.

"I want the game to be the center of attention again, that youth football is launched again, from non-League level to A," said Tommasi who has received the backing of legendary ex-Roma teammate Francesco Totti.

Three-time Champions League winning coach Carlo Ancelotti believes that Italian football is at a crossroads.

The 58-year-old had been the favorite to take over from Ventura, but revealed he turned down the offer, preferring to stay in club management.

"Italian football has serious problems and I don't think I'm capable of resolving them all alone," said the former Chelsea, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich coach.

Ancelotti is the only manager to win the elite European three times -- twice with AC Milan and once with Real Madrid.

"As usual the coach is blamed but that's not how it works. There is a structural problem," said Ancelotti who was sacked by Bayern Munich in September.

"For example, why are we the only country in Europe where the stadiums aren't up to scratch and half empty? That isn't the fault of Ventura."

"I realize there is a conflict of interests between clubs and federations, as there is in Germany, France and England, but right now Italian football needs the Federation to impose its power over the clubs and impose new rules to improve the situation.

"For example, I think Serie A would benefit greatly by being reduced from 20 teams to 18 and I know there are clubs who are ready to vote for that."