- Associated Press - Saturday, March 5, 2011

VILLARREAL, SPAIN (AP) - Italian soccer is stuck in the past, according to Giuseppe Rossi, and that’s why Spanish and English clubs have been dominating European competition in recent years.

Rossi, a forward from New Jersey who plays for Italy’s national team, has been with clubs in all three leagues.

He told The Associated Press in an interview that Italian soccer is still playing as if it’s the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, when Marco van Basten-led AC Milan and Juventus had the country at the peak of continental competition.

“Time changes, and you have to change with time. You can’t stay with the same idea you had back then. (Italian soccer) hasn’t made this evolution yet,” said Rossi, who has four goals in 17 appearances for Italy’s national team and who captained the Azzurri against Romania in November. “You’re always going to watch an English game or a Spanish game before Serie A, and this is because they were both able to evolve.”

Inter Milan’s Champions League triumph last season was Italy’s third _ AC Milan won in 2003 and ‘07 _ since 1997 in a competition dominated by Spanish and English clubs.

Although Spain has five trophies and England three over the same period, Italian clubs have recently struggled to reach the latter stages of the tournament with only Inter reaching the semifinals in the past three years.

English and Spanish teams have reached the final four on nine occasions since 2008, and Serie A will lose its fourth Champions League berth to Germany’s Bundesliga in the 2012-13 season.

No Italian club has won the UEFA Cup-Europa League since Parma’s victory 12 years ago with four Spanish wins since then.

Rossi, a fan of Spain’s technical game over traditional Italian tactics, said Italy coach Cesare Prandelli recognizes that possession _ the key to Spain’s World Cup title run last year _ is worth adopting.

“Prandelli sees that teams that win now are teams that keep the ball and possession,” said the Clifton native, who rejected the chance to play for the U.S. national team. “He’s really trying to change it. So far it’s going well.”

While Rossi has been critical of his low goal tally with Italy, he is enjoying a breakout season with Villarreal, where he was teammates with fellow American Jozy Altidore during the first half of the season.

Rossi leads the Yellow Submarine with 22 goals _ 13 in the league _ and has 67 from 128 appearances since joining Villarreal from Manchester United in 2007.

“I think (the Spanish league) does suit me best. It’s about always playing with the ball, keeping possession, keeping it at your feet,” Rossi said. “I’ve been here four years and I love it.”

Villarreal’s ambition is what drove the 24-year-old Rossi to sign a contract extension through 2016 earlier this year despite interest from Juventus and Tottenham. But Rossi said the Yellow Submarine isn’t likely to challenge Barcelona or Real Madrid in the Spanish league, and that dominance could lead to a talent drain in the coming years.

“There’s too much of a gap between them and the rest. That could be a problem because every player’s dream is to win titles, to basically have some glory. And if you’re not able to get this glory with teams like Sevilla, Atletico Madrid or Valencia, and you can’t get onto Barca or Madrid, you’re going to look somewhere else,” Rossi said. “It could be a drawback for young players coming in, who may look elsewhere. Luckily, so far it hasn’t.”

Barcelona or Madrid have finished first every year since Valencia in 2004.

Rossi said having to play for the honor of “best of the rest” means Villarreal’s season objectives were easy to set: going for titles in the Europa League and Copa del Rey and finishing among the top four to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

Despite exiting the domestic cup, Villarreal has reached the last 16 in Europe and is in fourth in the league at 15-6-5, 10 points ahead of fifth-place Espanyol.

“You do have to be realistic and know what are the objectives of your system. We did put that down that the Liga was going to be very difficult to do because of these two monsters in front of us,” Rossi said.

Still, the prospect of playing for either “monster” is also with him.

“Everybody wants to play for the best teams in the world. Everyone dreams about that stuff and I’m no different,” Rossi said. “Of course I dream about things but I’m always focused on what I’m doing right now. You never know. In soccer you never know.”

Rossi lives as an Italian playing in Spain, but his American ways are as discernible as his thick Jersey accent.

Rossi has more than 100,000 followers on Twitter, he craves M&Ms and Oreos, and he is not shy to admit he’s a fan of “Jersey Shore” and “The Wire.” The loan of Altidore to Buraspor for the rest of this season has left him as the lone American, but Rossi enjoys Spanish life and most of its traditional customs.

“(The lifestyle) is pretty cool because it’s pretty similar to the Italian way of living. The food is awesome, people are great and open, chilled and calm,” said Rossi, who also had spells with Newcastle and Parma. “(But) I hate the bullfighting because they just kill poor innocent bulls. The time I went I was actually rooting for the bull to hit the guy. I think he got him once and I was the only one cheering.”