Serie A has its mojo back and five guaranteed Champions League places – now how about six?

Fiorentina scored and a league celebrated. Nicolas Gonzalez’s goal in extra-time against Viktoria Plzen did not only return his team to the Conference League semi-finals in back-to-back years, it nudged Serie A into an unassailable position in the UEFA co-efficient. A fifth spot in next season’s expanded Champions League was assured.

“I thought it was going to be another cursed game,” Fiorentina coach Vincenzo Italiano admitted. His team were quintessentially tantric, creating without converting. Gonzalez’s deadlock-breaking shot was the 28th of 41 Fiorentina rained down on Viktoria Plzen’s goal. “It was tough when they went down to 10,” Gonzalez explained, alluding to Cadu’s red card after the hour mark. “But even in the first half, they played 11 men behind the ball.” Conference League and Coppa Italia runners-up last year, Fiorentina are on course to make both finals again under Italiano.

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Fifth in Serie A, Roma stand to benefit from Serie A placing first in the UEFA co-efficient. A five-year wait for Champions League football — an absence “unacceptable” in length according to coach Daniele De Rossi — appears set to end and, frankly, it would be hard to begrudge Roma were they to take the extra spot. No one has done more for the co-efficient in recent times than them. “It took excellence to beat Milan,” De Rossi said. Roma’s owners, the Friedkins were so confident in his ability to deliver it, they announced their decision to give him the job permanently on the morning of the game.

“Roma, to their credit, played a great game,” Milan coach Stefano Pioli said. Throughout his five-and-a-half years in charge, only Inter have dominated his team over two legs like Roma did in the past week. The first half hour got away from Milan on Thursday and Zeki Celik’s red card wasn’t capitalised on either as they exited Europe in an all-Italian affair for the second season in a row. “After the sending off we needed an intelligent game,” De Rossi said. “I’m proud to coach these players.”

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De Rossi’s Roma overcame Milan on Thursday (Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images)

He reached only one European semi-final in 616 appearances as a player. It came late in his career too after the unforgettable Romantada in 2018. Since then Roma have made four consecutive semi-finals under three different coaches (Paulo Fonseca, Jose Mourinho and now De Rossi). Only Juventus in the mid-90s boast a longer streak in Italy. It is an extraordinary transformation in Roma’s reputation. This is a club that always threatened to do something in Europe only for more talented teams than this one to lose 7-1 to Manchester United or Bayern and 6-1 to Barcelona.

A repeat of last season’s Europa League semi-final now awaits. Mourinho schooled his former player Xabi Alonso a year ago, scoring an early goal in the second leg at the Olimpico and then sitting back and resolutely defending the lead. De Rossi has made Roma a different, more expansive proposition and yet they are not ashamed to park the bus when the moment dictates. Conference League winners in Tirana in 2022, Europa League runners-up in Budapest in 2023, if Roma were to go one better and lift the trophy in Dublin next month, they wouldn’t need the extra fifth Champions League spot allocated to Serie A.

It would pass to Atalanta instead. But Atalanta aspire to win the Europa League themselves after knocking out the favourites Liverpool. As fireworks launched from behind the Gewiss Stadium snapped and crackled in the night sky at full-time on Thursday, Atalanta’s co-owners the Percassis and Steve Pagliuca contemplated the club’s first European semi-final since 1988, when the Dea made the final four of the Cup Winners’ Cup as a second division side.

A week after winning at Anfield for the second time in four years, Gian Piero Gasperini said: “There are no trophies in my career, but there are lots of medals and these wins are like beautiful medals.” The 66-year-old has reached the Coppa Italia final twice with Atalanta. Italiano and Fiorentina, often his kryptonite, stand in their way of making another one next week.  Then come Marseille and a shot at history for Gasp, his club and also Serie A. What if Atalanta finish sixth and win the Europa League? Italy would have six teams in next year’s Champions League. “When we started on this adventure seven years ago, there were doubts,” Gasperini reflected. “We felt a responsibility but we’ve made our contribution. For us, it’s an extra source of pride. We’re delighted to be involved and to have improved Italy’s ranking.”

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Gasperini and Atalanta overcame Liverpool across two legs (Isabella Bonotto/AFP via Getty Images)

After Serie A got a team into all three European finals last season, I explored what it told us about the state of the league in detail here. Things have changed in the meantime. The Decreto Crescita, a favourable tax break, has ended, denying Serie A an edge in the transfer market it has enjoyed for four years. A new wave of coaches has emerged like Italiano, now De Rossi and, a Gasperini disciple, Thiago Motta at Bologna. Other things have remained the same. There has been continuity of coaching at Milan, Inter and Atalanta, for example. The introduction of the Conference League has been a game changer as clubs like Roma and Fiorentina have taken it seriously, gaining confidence and experience from it.

Asked if Italian football is, at times, too harsh on itself, De Rossi said: “It’s no accident. At the forefront of our minds is the past when Italian football was the best in the world. There was a down period but teams have been going far for five or six years now. The teams in the Europa League semi-finals are Champions League teams. We have a lot going for us and so with big ideas and atmospheres like tonight’s, top players will continue to come.”

Calcio isn’t back to the standards of the 1990s but Serie A is now making a sustained attempt to be considered the best of the rest after the Premier League, whose teams may have endured a bad week in Europe, but continue to operate in a different financial stratosphere.

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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