by Michael Slaughter

In the build-up to Wednesday’s Champions league first leg match between AC Milan and Arsenal, I saw an article in a newspaper (I won’t say which one so their nonsense won’t get more hits) which said that neither Arsenal nor Chelsea should have any problems getting through their matches against Italian opposition because Serie A is a league in decline. This made Milan’s 4-0 dismantling of Arsenal all the more satisfying for me, as not only did it show that the Italian league still has some of the best players and teams in Europe, but also that Serie is as good as it’s ever been.

For those following the race for the Scudetto season, it’s been one of the closest for years, with four teams still in with a decent shout of winning the league, all of which have been playing some great football so far this season, and still some very good teams on the periphery of the top four, like Inter, Roma and Chelsea’s Champion’s league opponents, Napoli. Although this may be a bit controversial to say, the quality of football on display, to my eyes at least, has sometimes been of a much higher quality than that of the Premier league, because the teams at the top of Serie A have been defensively sound, which you certainly can’t say for some of England’s top teams, not least Arsenal and Chelsea who have been appalling at the back at times.

Whilst this defensive strength may lead some to call Italian football boring, I strongly disagree because sometimes a great defensive performance can be just as exciting as a great attacking one, case in point the second leg between Inter and Barcelona at the Nou Camp in their CL semi-final in 2010. But that’s not to do a disservice to the attacking quality at the top too; Juventus and Milan have been breath-taking at times, with some fantastic goals to boot.

I think the problem might just be a lack of exposure to the league which leads many people to just assume that Italian football simply isn’t as good anymore. Whereas in the 90s, Italian football was on terrestrial television every weekend (I can always remember the “GOOOAAAALLLL LAZIO!!” from the opening credits of Channel 4’s Italian football coverage), today it is only shown on ESPN, a channel that the majority of people don’t have, myself included. I firmly believe that if more people actually watched Italian football, this sort of ignorance wouldn’t be published in a national newspaper for people who don’t know any better to repeat parrot fashion and potentially put people off what is a fantastic league for the most part.

Zlatan gave a two fingered salute to a lot of his detractors with a supreme display.

But it isn’t just the league that has come under undue criticism from certain areas of the press, it is some of players as well. For years players like Francesco Totti, one of the most gifted players his generation, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have been singled out on numerous occasions for apparently not being good enough. While Totti is perhaps entering the twilight of his career, Zlatan gave a two fingered salute to a lot of his detractors with a supreme display against Arsenal on Wednesday.

The criticism that is usually thrown at Ibrahimovic is that he is a big game bottler, almost purely based on two admittedly poor performances against Liverpool in the Champion’s league for Inter. This was probably the first and only time a lot of English football fans would have seen him play, so therefore he was a rubbish player not worthy of all the hype that he had. Although he has a lackadaisical style that means that when he isn’t playing well he looks like he doesn’t want to be on the pitch, Zlatan is easily in the top 5 players in Europe for me at the minute, as he has displayed most notably in his last few performances against English teams. He scored two goals of real quality for Barca when they drew 2-2 with Arsenal a few years ago, and Wednesday night he was in imperious form. He was the architect of much of Milan’s attacking play and with two assists and a goal, I doubt many people can argue that he didn’t have the Arsenal on the ropes, and even running scared in the build-up to Robinho’s second, where it seemed like Arsenal’s defence were too afraid to make a tackle against him. But he does this week-in, week-out for Milan and anyone familiar with Serie A would not be surprised at him taking the Arsenal defence apart time and time again, which was poor as we have seen numerous times already this season.

So what was no doubt a significant win for keeping Milan’s season on track, it was arguably more significant for improving Italian football’s image across Europe. When Chelsea come up against Napoli next week, with top quality players in the likes of Edison Cavani and Marek Hamsik, I wouldn’t be all that surprised to see another English team get unceremoniously dumped out of Europe’s top club tournament at an early stage, and force certain football journalists to once again eat an awful lot of humble pie.