As Serie A gets back under way this weekend, Massimiliano Allegri’s men are once again the team to beat – but their rivals have strengthened significantly during the summer break
COMMENT By Mark Doyle
It seems that there are three certainties in life: death, taxes and a scandal before the start of the Italian football season. However, even Thursday’s news that Catania have been relegated from Serie B to Lega Pro for match-fixing cannot dampen the enthusiasm of the neutral ahead of the start of the 2015-16 Serie A campaign.
Juventus, of course, will once again begin as the team to beat in Italy’s top flight, with the Bianconeri bidding for a fifth successive Scudetto. However, there have been enough changes in Turin this summer to cast some doubt on whether Massimiliano Allegri’s men will be as imperious as they were last term, when they finished a staggering 17 points clear of nearest rivals Roma.
Indeed, two key cogs have been removed from what was arguably the second best midfield in Europe last term, with playmaker Andrea Pirlo departing for MLS and Arturo Vidal joining Bayern Munich. As a playmaker, Pirlo is utterly irreplaceable but Claudio Marchisio has proven an able deputy in the past and while he lacks the finesse and intelligence of his Italy team-mate but he offers greater mobility and superior protection in front of the defence.
Vidal’s departure is less of a blow – €40 million for a player of fluctuating form and fitness levels represents another astute piece of business by director general Giuseppe Marotta – but the decision to bring in Sami Khedira, while not costly, almost immediately backfired, with the free transfer from Real Madrid having already picked up an injury that will see him miss the first couple of months of the season.
However, several statement signings have been made by the Old Lady’s rivals this summer, most notably in Milan. Indeed, after years of disillusionment, there is an unfamiliar sense of optimism surrounding San Siro ahead of the big kick-off. After years of relying on free transfers and loan signings, Milan have spent big once more, emboldened and enriched by Thai businessman Bee Taechaubol buying a 48 per cent share in the club. Approximately €80 million has been splashed on the likes of Carlos Bacca, Luiz Adriano, Alessio Romagnoli and Andrea Bertolacci, providing new coach Sinisa Mihajlovic with a squad capable of banishing the memory of last season’s dismal 10th-placed finish under Filippo Inzaghi and challenging for a top-three finish.
Mihajlovic, of course, used to play for Inter and previously declared: “I could not coach Milan. I was at Inter. I could not do it out of respect for my old fans.” Consequently, the Rossoneri were a more than a little pleased with themselves after persuading the highly-rated Serbian to join them from Sampdoria. However, Inter supporters took great joy in hijacking Milan’s move for Geoffrey Kondogbia, with the Nerazzurri paying approximately €40 million for a player eminently capable of reinvigorating their midfield.
The sale of a talented player like Mateo Kovacic due to the effects of Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations is disappointing, but then the Croat never played with any consistency during his time in Italy and there can be no denying that Roberto Mancini now has a far stronger squad at his diposal. Indeed, if Stevan Jovetic stays fit, the former Manchester City man could form a prolific pairing with last season’s Capocannoniere, Mauro Icardi. However, much depends on Mancini. He brought about no discernible improvement upon succeeding Walter Mazzarri last November and now, having been backed in the market, the former City boss is under intense pressure to secure a return to the Champions League.
Rudi Garcia is also feeling the heat at Roma. The Frenchman arrived at the Stadio Olimpico from Lille two years ago as a virtual unknown in Italy (midfielder Daniele De Rossi had to ‘Google’ him!) but promptly transformed the Giallorossi from also-rans to title challengers. However, while there was no shame in finishing second to Juve in – quite the opposite – but the way in which Roma collapsed during the second half of last season has raised considerable doubts about Garcia’s man-management.
Some shocking deals during the January transfer window hardly helped. It’s encouraging, then, that Roma have now taken the novel approach of actually buying a centre-forward worthy of the name by acquiring Edin Dzeko from City. The Bosnian should also be ably supported by Mohamed Salah, who lit up Serie A during his loan spell at Fiorentina during the second half of last season, and ex-Genoa ace Iago Falque. However, serious question marks remain over the defence, making the decision to sell the promising Alessio Romagnoli to Milan all the more puzzling.
Napoli, meanwhile, have their own problems at the back. Nobody in the top 10 conceded more goals than the Partenopei last season, with their defensive deficiencies completely undermining their Champions League aspirations. Maurizio Sarri looks a canny choice as coach, though, with the former Empoli boss shunning the methods of predecessor Rafael Benitez by putting players in their preferred positions, much to the delight of captain Marek Hamsik: “Why did I find it difficult with Benitez? Last year I played nearly always with my back to the goal.” Whether Napoli have what it takes to challenge for the title remains to be seen but, after holding onto star striker Gonzola Higuain, they should certainly once again entertain.
The same can definitely be said of Fiorentina, with new coach Paulo Sousa not only intent on implementing his adventurous attacking principles at the Stadio Artemio Franchi but also putting his faith in the exciting Khouma Babacar and Federico Bernardeschi. Lazio should also provide plenty of excitement, with the precociously talented Keita Balde Diao set for an extended run in the starting line-up alongside Felipe Anderson, the breakout star of last season.
Indeed, Serie A looks extremely well placed to maintain its position as the highest-scoring of Europe’s top five leagues. Serious problems remain, of course – most notably off the field – but the return of any league that guarantees goals is always reason for excitement.