It wasn’t the best summer for Italian football. The national team made a swift exit from the World Cup for the second time in a row, with Cesare Prandelli leaving. The new head of the Italian Football Federation was engulfed in a racism row. And there is still the sense that the best now play elsewhere, as the biggest names arriving in Italy are ageing cast-offs from the Premier League in the shape of Ashley Cole, Nemanja Vidic, Fernando Torres and Patrice Evra. Meanwhile, last season’s Capocannoniere Ciro Immobile left for Borussia Dortmund and Mario Balotelli to Liverpool. It is somewhat fitting that the two best teams at the moment are the most forward thinking, in Juventus – who own their own stadium – and Roma – who will soon follow suit. Elsewhere the rest of the league continues to suffer from playing in often old and council-owned stadiums and the need to balance the books by selling top players.
On the pitch, for the last three years the big question in Serie A has been whether anyone can stop Juventus. Opposition fans, particularly those of AC Milan, may now jokingly suggest that the answer is yes, Massimilliano Allegri can.
Allegri, fired by AC Milan last season, has replaced Antonio Conte, who spent three near faultless years as coach at the Juventus Stadium. Not only have Juventus won three consecutive titles for the first time since the 1930s, but the first was achieved without losing a single game and the last set a points record for Serie A. With Conte’s departure, the talk is of who may prise the title from the Bianconeri. The other giants of the Italian game, Milanese rivals AC and Inter, are both rebuilding.
The most likely contenders appear to be Roma. Rudi Garcia did a superb job last year in his first campaign in the Italian capital, guiding his side to the runners-up spot behind Juventus. In any other season, they would have been within touching distance of the title, perhaps even lifting it. If Juventus’ standards drop and Roma improve in their second season under the Frenchman, then this could be their year. Garcia knows what it takes to win a title, having guided unfashionable Lille to the French championship in 2011, and with talents such as Miralem Pjanic, Kevin Strootman, Daniele De Rossi and the evergreen Francesco Totti, they have the personnel. This summer they have added the experience of Ashley Cole, the talented young Argentine Juan Iturbe and Davide Astori. The fly in the ointment is the loss of defender Mehdi Benatia to Bayern Munich, but Roma will certainly push hard for the title.
The other intriguing contender is Rafael Benitez’s Napoli. Third last season, second the year before, they boast arguably the best forward in Italy – Gonzalo Higuain – and a supporting cast of Dries Mertens, Marek Hamsik and Lorenzo Insigne. There is certainly the potential to push on and challenge Roma and Juventus this season and Benitez’s tactical acumen could give them a useful edge. Kalidou Koulibaly has replaced Federico Fernandez at the back and how well he assumes that role will be key for the Neapolitans. If Michu can find his scoring boots after a difficult year last time out with Swansea, he can be another useful addition, but the problem for Napoli could be that they lack the depth required to go all the way this season, though an early exit from the Champions League may help matters. And they will have to be more consistent against the teams they are expected to beat as well, if they are to repeat the glory days of Diego Maradona and reclaim the Scudetto.
Fiorentina were the closest to the top three last time out and have so far managed to hold onto Juan Cuadrado, which bodes well for Vincenzo Montella. Guiseppe Rossi and Mario Gomez have been developing their understanding according to Montella, and if they click they could be a ferocious pair going forward. There is an impressive array of talent throughout the squad and the Viola have been knocking on the door of the top three waiting for it to open for the last couple of seasons. It could be ajar this time, so they will be worth watching.
And what of those other giants of Italian football? AC Milan swapped Clarence Seedorf for Filippo Inzaghi, just months into the Dutchman’s first assignment as a coach. Inzaghi now makes his top level coaching debut having managed their youth team. Last year was Milan’s worst in 15 years and they could match that this time around if pre-season is anything to go by, having lost heavily to Manchester City, Liverpool and Olympiacos. Mario Balotelli has gone, which could both be a blessing and a curse rolled into one, with Fernando Torres brought to replace him, on a two-year loan from Chelsea. Stephan El Shaarawy will have the chance to make the forward position his own in Inzaghi’s 4-3-3 system and the talented young Egyptian can have establish himself as a household name if he is focused and fit. Having taken Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic from the Rossoneri, Paris Saint-Germain finally returned the favour this year, with Jeremy Menez and Alex arriving, but that is a sign of the club’s diminishing stature in the game. This year it is vital they start to rebuild the aura that once surrounded a great club.
The one thing Milan can console themselves with is the ongoing malaise across the city at Inter. Javier Zanetti has gone, Nemanja Vidic and Gary Medel have been the main signings and there is nothing to suggest this team is about to burst into life, although they do still boast talents in Rodrigo Palacio, Mateo Kovacic and the enigmatic youngster Mauro Icardi. Taking the talented but controversial Yann M’Vila on loan smacks of desperation though.
Further back Lazio will hope to push into the European places having fallen away at the end last year, whilst Parma have kept their squad largely intact and can push on this year. They finished sixth last season and can replicate that this time around, although there is still a strong sense of anger that they were denied a license to compete in Europe by the Italian Football Federation. Verona will struggle to repeat their impressive performance last year without Iturbe. Torino will benefit from the experience and nous of Fabio Quagliarella, who replaces Immobile, and will look to combine with Luca Toni and Alessio Cerci, if they can keep him. Zdenek Zeman’s Cagliari should entertain as the maverick returns to management. Atalanta, Chievo and Sampdoria will hope for calm seasons, whilst Udinese will believe that Andrea Stramaccioni can keep them at least in mid-table.
The battle for the drop is likely to focus on Sassuolo, Empoli, Cesena, Palermo and Genoa. The latter will hope that the return of Gianpiero Gasperini means they can avoid the relegation scrap, but there is a question mark over them going into the new season. Sassuolo did incredibly well just to survive last time and will look for the same again. With Domenico Berardi staying on loan from Juventus, that will fuel their optimism, whilst Empoli and Cesena will hope to avoid a swift return to the second tier. And for Palermo, the third newly promoted side this season, just as intriguing a question as whether they will survive or not is how many coaches president Maurizio Zamperini will go through this campaign.
Players to watch
Juan Iturbe – Quick and skilful, and likened to Lionel Messi before he left South America for Europe, the Argentine youngster failed to find his feet with FC Porto but thrived at Verona last season. Having moved to Roma this summer from under the nose of the champions Juventus, Iturbe on one side with Gervinho on the other could cause Serie A’s full-backs nightmares.
Fabio Quagliarella – the forward has left Juventus for city rivals Torino and can expect to earn some long awaited regular first team football. Known for his habit of scoring spectacular goals, Quagliarella should be at the very least worth catching on the highlights reel.
Mateo Kovacic – the Croatian midfielder showed what he was capable of when called upon last year and this could be the season he establishes himself in the Inter Milan line-up. Technically proficient, he is capable of organising the play from the centre of the pitch and can be the hub of this transitional Inter side. Miralem Pjanic – the Bosnian midfielder was one of the stars of last season, but the talented Pjanic can be expected to get better and better. Developing a knack for the spectacular – witness his magnificent solo goal against AC Milan last season – if Roma were to win the league, Pjanic could well be the player of the season.
Alvaro Morata – the signing from Real Madrid is one of the most promising young forwards in Europe and his finishing instinct should ensure that he is able to adapt to the Italian game. Just as deadly coming off the bench as he is starting, Morata could prove a vital impact substitute late in games.
Teams to watch
Lazio – It has been a decent summer for Rome’s other team, who have signed the talented Dutch defender Stefan de Vrij and Parma’s Marco Parolo. Filip Djordjevic has arrived on a free transfer from Nantes and, with the talented Antonio Candreva and Cristian Ledesma in midfield, Lazio could shine.
Fiorentina – If anyone is going to break into the top three this season it could just be the Viola. With Juan Cuadrado still in situ at the time of writing, they have a squad bristling with talent from front to back. David Pizarro, Matias Fernandez and Borja Valero form the basis of a technically astute midfield alongside Cuadrado, and with Mario Gomez and Guiseppe Rossi up front, goals shouldn’t be hard to come by. And it might just be that attack is the best form of defence in Italy this season.
Udinese – With Francesco Guidolin having departed after four years at the helm, this could be a transitional season for Udinese. Andrea Stramaccioni has arrived and the talented young coach could be either a roaring success or a dismal flop.
Cagliari – Zdenek Zeman has returned to management with the Sardinian outfit and will, if nothing else, provide entertainment. His brand of in your face attacking football makes for a refreshing contrast to the tactical spectacle that is Italian football and it will be intriguing to see how he does with Cagliari.
Fixtures to look out for
30th August – Roma v Fiorentina
An early season clash which will showcase these two sides’ respective credentials for the title and the top three.
21st September – AC Milan v Juventus
A key early season barometer for Milan’s progress under Inzaghi as Allegri returns to the San Siro.
5th October – Juventus v Roma
The big two face off in what is expected to be a clash between the two sides fighting for the title
2nd November – Napoli v Roma
If Napoli are to challenge they could make a big statement in games like this
23rd November – Milan v Inter
A marker for either of these teams as they seek to re-establish themselves.
1st March – Roma v Juventus
The return between these two should be just as critical, if not more so, than the first game
26th April – Torino v Juventus
Can their city rivals scupper Juventus’ challenge?
29th April – Juventus v Fiorentina
There is history between these two and the Viola will be looking to dent Juve’s aspirations as they push on late in the season
24th May – Juventus v Napoli
On the final day of the season either of these teams, or both, could be challenging to lift the Scudetto.
24th May – Lazio v Roma
Italy’s policemen must have collectively shaken their heads when the fixture list was revealed. But what a prospect it could be if Roma end the season needing a point or more to clinch the title, taking on their fierce city rivals.