Soccer-Juventus flying the flag for beleaguered Serie A


By Terry Daley

ROME, March 21 (Reuters) - Juventus face a Europa League quarter-final with Olympique Lyon knowing it is down to them to restore pride in Serie A, which has lost its shine after its top clubs were once again left licking their wounds in Europe.

The Serie A champions are the last Italian team standing in either the Champions League or the second tier Europa League after Napoli, AC Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina all fell by the wayside in one or both competitions.

The league that used to be considered the toughest in the world is flagging in the face of competition from the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga and German Bundesliga.

The poor showing by Italian clubs on the continent over recent seasons led to Serie A losing its fourth Champions League spot to Germany in 2012.

Now there are fears they could be overtaken in UEFA's coefficient rankings by Portugal, who have two teams left in the Europa League after Benfica beat England's Tottenham Hotspur and Porto knocked out Napoli 3-2 on aggregate.

It was a sour end for Rafael Benitez's side who were unlucky to have fallen into the Europa League after finishing their Champions League group level on 12 points with Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund.

Italian champions Juventus were also handed a second chance in the Europa League after a disappointing showing in the Champions League where they lost their crucial final group stage match to Galatasaray on a horrendous pitch in Istanbul.

While Juve are Italy's best-supported club and the most successful domestically, it is seven-times European Cup winners AC Milan who usually fly the Italian flag abroad.

Having scraped into the Champions League knock-out stages, they were soundly beaten 5-1 on aggregate by Atletico Madrid in the last 16, highlighting how far they have fallen having made the decision to cut debts by selling players.

"In Europe teams face you head on, and as we're not used to that we've met some difficulties," said former Juventus midfielder Pavel Nedved after Friday's quarter-final draw.

"Even my Juventus struggled in Europe. We were the strongest in the league but in Europe we had a hard time."

Juventus have been leading calls for drastic reform in Italian football, with president Andrea Agnelli and coach Antonio Conte not shy in airing their opinions.

"We have to ask ourselves what Italian football will be like in a few years' time," Agnelli told the club's shareholders at a meeting in Turin almost a year-and-a-half ago.

"Many nations have experienced a decline but none have had such a sudden collapse. We are seeing a complete structural collapse and it can't just be explained away as being part of the financial crisis."

Most Italian clubs play in ageing stadiums, almost all of which are owned by local authorities rather than the clubs themselves, and attendances are down after a series of repressive ticketing measures designed to curb hooliganism.

Only Juventus have a modern arena on a par with those found in England or Germany, while AS Roma are set to reveal plans for a new ground next Wednesday.

An image crisis has led to a lower level of investment from abroad than in other leagues, meaning that top players are tempted by bigger pay packets away from Serie A.

Paris St Germain's high-profile strikers Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani used to ply their trade for AC Milan and Napoli respectively.

They have since struck up a fine partnership in the French capital and face a mouth-watering Champions League quarter-final with Chelsea, a stark contrast with the predicaments of their former clubs.

Italian teams have failed to take the Europa League seriously in the past and it has cost them at the highest level, cutting the number of places for the country's biggest clubs at the top table.

Results in the second tier competition contribute to UEFA's coefficient ranking system used to determine the number of Champions League places allocated to a country.

Juventus know that winning this year's title would go some way to restoring some prestige to a famous footballing nation.

"This Juve side has everything to do well in Europe and I hope that we'll show that this year, because we have a team that can do well both in the league and in the Europa League," said Nedved.

"I think it could be the right year." (Reporting by Terry Daley; editing by Toby Davis)

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