x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The Italian sides are playing for nation's future

The Europa League focuses Italy's attention tonight. Or, rather, fans will set time aside to watch Lazio take on Sporting Lisbon, and Udinese at Glasgow Celtic.

The Europa League focuses Italy's attention tonight. Or, rather, fans will set time aside to watch Lazio take on Sporting Lisbon, and Udinese at Glasgow Celtic.

Results against these sides should not present any obstacles for the Italians, but don't count on it. Serie A's contingent is already down to two from four, since Roma were knocked out by Slovan Bratislava and Palermo lost to Switzerland's FC Thun.

Two out of four is a poor showing from one of the game's glamour nations. But all too typical. Italy has not had a finalist in the Uefa Cup/Europa League this side of the new millennium. There's an indifference towards this cup because of its status beside the dominant Champions League. Yet Italy cannot afford to sneer. Lazio and Udinese should ask today's opponents about the potential joys of this cup. Celtic's finest European achievement of the last decade? Reaching the 2003 Uefa Cup final.

Two years later, Sporting finished runners-up, a 21st-century peak for that club. Portugal has had four finalists in the Uefa Cup/Europa League in the past six years, which is partly why their league has moved stealthily up the Uefa coefficient rankings. Serie A recently slipped down, to fourth, behind the German Bundesliga.

That drop has already cost Italy's top-flight a Champions League place: next year only Serie A's top three go into the principal Uefa competition. If Italian clubs fall under par in Europe over the next couple of years, they could be overtaken further, by France's Ligue 1, and even by the Portuguese Liga.