Straight from the dark heart of Italy
As Serie A finally kicks off, our man in Italy picks the runners and riders for the Scudetto, Europe and relegation.
Juventus gave the rest of Italian football a glimpse of what the future could hold when they inaugurated their new stadium in a lavish evening of fireworks, special guests and ribbon-cutting.
And a most elegant stadium it is, too, with a capacity of 41,000 and more than enough room not to seem too empty when anyone but Inter or AC Milan visit. It will be the envy of Serie A, and a major disappointment to binoculars salesmen, as there is no running track. Hopefully, it’s also fireproof, for when the locals turn feral.
In keeping with the low-key build-up to the season, it was not Barcelona, Real Madrid or a Premier League club that were the guests of honour. It wasn’t even an English Championship side. Juventus’ opponents were Notts County, who provided the Turin club with their first set of black and white striped shirts around the turn of the 20th century, to replace their rosé tops of the time (which were, by all accounts from those now long dead, rather fetching).
But in the modern day, Antonio Conte’s side remained in keeping with Italy’s new-found standing in the game by managing only to draw 1-1 with the League One team. The suggestion, though, was that it was a diplomatic result and everyone went home happy and content.
Now, down to the real business. At long last, Serie A is set to take flight – but not in the manner of a private jet or business-class trip somewhere exotic. No, it’s more in the low-cost, no-frills variety where you have a 50-50 chance of the journey being either a pleasant surprise or an incalculable nightmare.
The new campaign kicks off this evening with champions Milan at home to Lazio in what is round two of the season, with the opening games now rescheduled for the dead of winter and the shortest day of the year on December 21st.
The players’ union and their revolt against the clubs, which scuppered the opening weekend, came to a typical Italian conclusion: we’ll leave things the way they are and discuss it all again at a later date – in this case, next summer – but basically, let’s just forget all about it.
So we are ready to go, and from Milan’s squad of 160million Euro earners to newly-promoted Novara’s 9.8m Euro take-home hopefuls, each and every team has its dreams and hopes for the season ahead.
Massimiliano Allegri’s champions will start as favourites, having kept the core of the squad together and eased out a couple of hangers-on, such as Marek Jankulovski and Massimo Oddo. Filippo Inzaghi, meanwhile, was essentially shown the door in January, the veteran striker being excluded from the Champions League list.
No Mr X on the transfer front – only Alberto Aquilani – so Allegri has laid down the law with Antonio Cassano, who has responded in kind by knuckling down in training. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been told he can do basically what he wants as long as he does not burn himself out by the turn of the year. He may need to start eating breakfast – something he hadn’t been doing last year (or maybe ever).
There will be little change in the team’s approach, and the big Swede – who is promising a 20-goal season – will be the focal point of the attack. Allegri must ensure, though, that Alexandre Pato is not overshadowed, or there could be the first fissures in the cosy relationship the Brazilian has with the club – never mind that with the president’s daughter.
It may be Milan’s title to lose but the chasing pack will feel they all have a tilt at the big prize. Inter will be looking over their shoulders after Massimo Moratti put the blank cheques back in the drawer and cut the wage bill to a still quite staggeringly high 145m Euros, following the sale of Samuel Eto’o, which saved 9m euros in salary a year.
New coach Gian Piero Gasperini has been struggling to impose his three-man defence on an aging backline. He also needs to find the right position for Wesley Sneijder, who is at his most dangerous in a free role further up the pitch rather than as a deep-lying playmaker.
Juve, for their part, could explode or just as equally implode, such is the pressure on the team to live up to their new surroundings and qualify for the Champions League. It must be remembered, of course, that there are now only three places available.
Conte seems to have the same problem as his predecessor, Luigi Delneri. He has talented players at his disposal, but can he get them to gel in a formation that calls for non-stop movement and toil?
Napoli have been the most active club in the transfer market, bringing in eleven new players, while president Aurelio De Laurentiis sent out a strong message by retaining the services of Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi, who will provide the final passes for top goalscorer Edinson Cavani.
It could be the year that Napoli make the great leap forward, but much will depend on how well they survive a nightmarish Champions League group stage featuring Manchester City, Bayern Munich and Villarreal.
As with Juve, AS Roma have no European football to distract them, having handily crashed out of the Europa League at the preliminary stage to Slovan Bratislava. Instead, the ongoing power struggle between Francesco Totti and the new American owners needs to be resolved to leave Luis Enrique free of the infighting that could easily break the morale of his fledging squad.
With their city cousins building for the future, Lazio could be ready to grab the bragging rights in the capital and push for the top three. Edy Reja’s side look solid more than spectacular, however, and doubts surround the fitness and staying power of Djibril Cisse and Miroslov Klose.
Dark horses are few and far between. Genoa could spring a surprise or two, but not in the manner of Udinese last year, who look set to drop out of the top six. Fiorentina have the impressive Stevan Jovetic back from injury but Riccardo Montolvio’s lack of enthusiasm to remain mirrors that of their owners, the Della Valle family.
The three sides that came up, Atalanta, Siena and Novara, will be favourites to go straight down again – especially Atalanta, who start with a six-point penalty for their part in the betting scandal which came to light in early summer. If one of the new boys were to remain, prime candidates for the drop would be Siena, with Lecce and Chievo not far behind (or more accurately, in front).
The rest of Europe may have already departed, but the important thing is that Serie A finally has its slot on the runway. As always, we never know exactly what sort of journey is ahead, but it’s safe to bet on it being a bumpy ride.
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