There was a time in the not too distant past that the Coppa Italia made England’s League Cup or UEFA’s now-defunct InterToto Trophy look prestigious. As recently as 2007 Chievo, Empoli, and Arezzo were among the Quarter finalists as the so-called big teams treated the ties as though they were mid-season friendlies, often filling their match-day squads with youth team products and assorted fringe players.
Now though, in a trend seemingly repeated across Europe, the competition has rediscovered its appeal and the top clubs have stopped withholding their interest until the semi-finals and begun to take it seriously. This has been assisted greatly by a number of factors combining to rapidly move the trophy up the list of priorities at a wide variety of clubs.
Firstly huge credit must go to the FIGC who finally realised the format of the competition was as out-dated as the stereo-typical view that the league is filled with catenaccio-style football and boring matches. The widely criticised two-legged ties were abandoned, apart from the Semi-Finals, and the final became a one-off match up with a permanent home in Rome.
Now, much like the far more well-respected FA Cup, the league have crammed a large portion of the competition into the quiet period in January, meaning there have been two rounds in the last two weeks. The last 16 and quarter-finals have now been and gone, igniting excitement and leaving fans desperately wanting more.
Second is the increased sense of value placed on the competition by the bigger clubs. Only the absence of Lazio, who lost in the last sixteen to bitter rivals Roma, prevented the quarter-finals from being a clean sweep of the league’s current top eight teams: Parma, currently sitting twelfth, managed to break the circle by luck of the draw but were dispatched by Palermo on penalties this week.
Exiting alongside Parma were Juventus, Napoli and Sampdoria as league leaders Milan, Roma and current champions Inter joined the Sicilian side in April’s semi-final line up. That the Giallorossi face the treble winners in the Coppa Italia for the sixth time in seven years is in itself remarkable, as is the fact that four of those encounters have actually been in the Final.
Another factor that has helped is , perversely, the domination of Inter on the domestic scene. The almost impossible task of challenging the Nerazzurri in the league in recent seasons has forced the other clubs to focus on the Coppa as a means of winning silverware to appease fans increasingly desperate for glory. Roma in particular have taken this path, and Juventus definitely tried to copy that this season.
Perhaps an under-valued aspect of this increased prestige should be accredited to Jose Mourinho. Ever since his days at Porto he has placed an unprecedented level of importance upon these domestic cup competitions, winning five already in just over ten years as a head coach. For a contrasting view, Arsene Wenger has won just five himself in a managerial career that began in 1984. Mourinho’s focus has seen other clubs forced to compete in order to be held in the same regard.
The huge improvements seen among sides like Palermo, Napoli and Sampdoria in the past two years has also increased the wealth of talent in the competition, as Presidents, coach’s and players alike clamour for recognition of their progress. This was last seen almost ten years ago when a talent-laden Fiorentina triumphed, giving Viola legends like Manuel Rui Costa medals and success to be remembered by.
One major point of interest in the semi-final match ups is seeing Palermo among the contenders, given that with the other three teams still in the Champions League – and far more likely to be in the Scudetto hunt – they would be the team best equipped to topple the big team dominance. Their forward play has been remarkable to watch and the defence is much improved, with the excellence of their fullbacks making for an intriguing match up when they face a Milan side notoriously weak in those areas.
Winning the Coppa would be just reward for their impressive side, giving men like Javier Pastore and Fabrizio Miccoli the recognition their efforts in Sicily so richly deserve. Having said that Roma too will, as always, be chasing the trophy as they are currently tied with Juventus on nine wins. Talk of adding a silver star to their shirts should they reach ten will be huge incentive, particularly as Francesco Totti – now in the twilight of his career – looks to increase his legacy at the capital club.
Should either Milan side make an early exit from the Champions League then they too would redouble their efforts in the Coppa as a means of securing glory. All four teams then have reasons to chase a place in the final and then lift the trophy, which once again will increase the profile and prestige for the once maligned Coppa Italia.