I don’t need to remind you, but the last month has not gone well for Inter Milan. Following the club’s impressive 7-1 win over Atalanta, which was thought at the time to be a statement victory, Inter have gone on a six-match winless streak, picking up a pathetic two out of a possible 18 points.
In that span, the club fell from fifth place in the table (and still in contention for a Champions League place) to seventh, and on the outside looking in for Europa League qualification.
As an Inter fan, I find myself in an awkward position. Of course, I want the Nerazzurri to win every game they play, and failing to finish above AC Milan should be viewed as unacceptable, but based on what’s happened with this team and around Europe this season, I do not want Inter to qualify for the Europa League playoff round.
Say what you will about the Europa League, and it’s added benefit of granting the tournament’s champion a spot in the Champions League, but it’s not a competition Inter have taken seriously when we’ve qualified. Having to play in the playoff qualifying round could also cut the club’s preseason tour short, so any monetary gains from the competition would be negated by the lost revenue.
Next season, Italy’s top four will qualify for the 2018/19 Champions League, so I would prefer the club to focus on achieving that, rather than being distracted by the Europa League. If Suning spend as expected, and bring in several new signings, the squad may be better served from playing only one match a week (and having extended time to gel on the training pitch in Appiano) than having to navigate a condensed fixture list.
To play devil’s advocate, the Europa League is still a valuable competition, and one in which Inter could rotate the squad and play a few younger players (but do we really have faith that will happen?). The automatic Champions League qualification for the tournament’s victor is also nothing to laugh at.
But with this season as evidence, the club have shown no ambition to actually win the Europa League. And, having to play Thursday night group stage matches in God knows where locations, could severely hinder the team’s league performances on Saturdays and Sundays, when achieving a top-four league position should be the one and only goal for next season.
Further, if you look around Europe this season, a trend becomes evident. Clubs that have competed in continental competitions have been less successful domestically than in years past. Let’s dig a little deeper, and look at how teams that played European football this season are faring in the continent’s top domestic leagues.
In Spain, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico and Sevilla qualified for the Champions League. Those clubs are currently in the top four again this season. Bilbao, Villareal, and Celta Vigo competed in the Europa League, and are 5th, 6th, and 11th respectively.
So, while Spain may not be the greatest example of this trend, Germany most certainly is. Last season, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen, and Borussia Mönchengladbach qualified for the Champions League. Of that group, only Bayern have replicated their form this season. The clubs are currently 1st, 4th, 12th, and 9th respectively. Schalke, Mainz and Hertha finished in Europa League spots last year, and while Hertha are playing well this campaign, Schalke and Mainz are both in the bottom half of the table. The current second and third place teams in the Bundesliga (Leipzig and Hoffenheim) did not qualify for Europe last season.
England is another example of a league where teams that qualified for Europe last year are struggling. Leicester City, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City qualified for the Champions League last campaign. They are currently 11th, 6th, 2nd (more on Spurs in a minute), and 4th in the table. Manchester United, West Ham, and Southampton represented England in the Europa League, and are currently 5th, 15th, and 9th in this year’s Premier League.
Let’s take a closer look at England for a second. Chelsea are the current leaders (and very likely to finish as champions), Tottenham are in second place, and Liverpool (no European competition this season) are in third. Of course, old enemy (and future friend?) Antonio Conte has led a remarkable turnaround for the blues this season after the league leaders finished 10th in 2016. Conte has rotated his squad the least out of all Premier League managers this season, and the lack of European football is surely the reason why. Chelsea are a talented and deep club, so I’m not suggesting they wouldn’t be leading the Premier League had they qualified for Europe, but only having to play Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, N’Golo Kante, and their wing-backs once a week certainly doesn’t hurt.
Tottenham are another team I want to pay closer attention to. Spurs competed in the Champions League this season, and are currently in second place. As a result, they should disprove my hypothesis then, right? After a closer look, that’s not the case.
Tottenham failed to make it out of their Champions League group, and sat in 5th place at the time of their CL elimination. Spurs were also in 5th place when they lost their two-legged Europa League tie with KAA Genk. It was only after the club crashed out of Europe that Tottenham went on their impressive run in the league (nine straight EPL victories) to climb from 5th to 2nd, and pressure Chelsea for the title. Tottenham struggled when they had to juggle European and domestic competitions, but have been an unstoppable juggernaut when only focusing on England.
What does this tell us? Well, this year is proof that it’s very difficult for clubs not at the level of Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and Atletico to compete in a European tournament and have domestic success. Whether it’s increased parity in the domestic leagues, or the strain of travel and having to play multiple matches in a week, clubs are struggling to put it all together.
Next season is shaping up to be another “year zero” for the Nerazzurri. With new signings, departures, and potentially a new manager, Inter may change a lot this summer. The team will undoubtedly need time on the training pitch to work out the kinks. It’s with that in mind that I believe a condensed fixture list, and the distraction of the Europa League, would do more harm than good for Inter.
The only goal next season should be to finish in the top four. Let’s attempt to do so without wasting time in a competition the club doesn’t even want to win. Let’s finish seventh, forget this season ever happened, and make a strong push for the Champions League in 2017/18.