World Soccer
Tuesday November 3rd, 2009

Where have all the wonder teams gone? There was a time -- perhaps there still is that time -- when the Serie A championship was totally dominated by the three superpowers: Inter Milan, AC Milan and Juventus. Not only has this trio won 26 of the last 33 league titles, it has also tended (at least one has) to utterly dominate the season, home and away.

These are, of course, early days, but with seven games played, it is hard to resist the impression that Serie A -- in this post-Kaká, post-Ibrahimovic, post-Maldini, post-Ancelotti season -- is leveling out. Or put another way: The big three are not having things all their own way.

In a sense, there is nothing new about this. Teams involved in Europe like to time their preparations so they hit peak form in March, not October. The distraction and physical demands of Champions League group games can offer lesser sides an early season advantage. However, it could be that this season, as in so many others, one of the big three will emerge strong and unbeatable next spring.

For the time being, though, it is hard to envision Milan being that side. With just nine points in the bag by mid-October, a loss to Inter and Udinese in the league and a Champions League home defeat to Zürich, Milan has made a very poor start. You have to go back to the 1981-82 and '97-98 campaigns to find a season when it had fewer points after seven games. Neither of those seasons ended particularly well, either, with Gigi Radice's '82 team being relegated and Fabio Capello's '98 squad ending up an ignominious 10th.

So, has something gone seriously wrong at Milanello, or is Milan merely undergoing the sort of "running in" difficulties that are to be expected from a side that has lost coach Carlo Ancelotti (to Chelsea), captain Paolo Maldini (retired) and gifted Brazilian playmaker Kaká (Real Madrid)?

Furthermore, Milan did not go exactly wild in the transfer market this summer. That was not so much a reflection of the weak economic situation of Italian clubs in Europe; it was a case of club owner and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi finding it "inopportune" to be seen spending millions on his favorite play thing while most Italians are struggling during the recession.

Initial club reaction would seem to be measured. Milanello insiders say that rookie Brazilian coach Leonardo is not on the hot seat, despite the poor start. Furthermore, veteran central defender Alessandro Nesta seemed to indicate a seriousness of dressing-room mood when speaking after Milan's 1-1 away draw with the joint-bottom team, Atalanta.

Pointing out that his side had a numeric advantage for the entire second half, following the sending-off of Atalanta's Serb midfielder Ivan Radovanovic, Nesta complained:

"We're still struggling, we need to be humble and admit it. You can't pretend that with this draw we've resolved everything. Milan solves its problems by winning, above all against a 10-man team. We've still got a lot of work to do but one thing is for sure: Leo can rest easy. The team and the club are with him, we just need a few good results."

Perhaps Milan should take heart from the form shown so far this season by its youth team. Twenty-four hours before the Atalanta match, the youth side picked up a prized win (3-0) over Inter to eliminate it from the Coppa Italia Primavera. Perhaps a brighter future awaits Milan, a future that the club can find within its own youth resources.

In the meantime, Milan continues to wait on three key Brazilians. Can Leonardo convince men such as Andrea Pirlo, Gianluca Zambrotta, Gennaro Gattuso, Massimo Ambrosini and Nesta to put their best foot forward? Will Alexandre Pato regain the sort of brilliant form that marked his first two seasons in Italian football? And, above all, will Ronaldinho step up and finally sparkle again as he did in his heyday at Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona?

If the answer to all three is yes, then even the immediate future is bright at Milanello. But if the answer is no to any of them, then this could be a very long, painful season -- both in Serie A and in the Champions League.

As for their city cousins, Inter's pain is something it has endured only in Europe, in recent seasons at least. This year, more than ever, the Champions League is the overriding objective. And in that context, a 1-0 September defeat away to Sampdoria may be of relative importance. One week later, Inter was lucky to beat Udinese 2-1 at home with a winner from Wesley Sneijder three minutes into added time. Team unity, determination and self-belief were there for all to see. Attractive football, however, was not. The same might be said of their 0-0 Champions League home draw with Barcelona.

In his second season in Italian football, coach José Mourinho still seems to view his Inter as a "work in progress." The Champions League will tell us whether or not he has realized his capolavoro (masterpiece). In the meantime, that defeat by the Antonio Cassano-inspired Sampdoria was a sharp reminder that the big boys will not have it all their own way.

Palermo's 2-0 home win over Juventus comes into exactly the same category. After a bright seasonal start which saw "the Old Lady" travel south to Rome in successive weeks, defeating first Roma and then Lazio, Juventus has no longer looks as impressive. While an entertaining 2-2 away draw with Genoa and a 0-0 Champions League away draw with Bayern Munich were not bad results, a subsequent 1-1 home draw with Bologna suggested Juve was going off the deep end -- an impression that was fully confirmed by the Palermo game where, in the words of central defender Giorgio Chiellini, Juventus could have been down 4-0 at halftime.

Ironically, Palermo's talented coach, the former Inter and Italy goalkeeper Walter Zenga, had gone into that game allegedly in need of a good result to save his job. Having won on the opening day of the season, Palermo had gone five games without another victory and approached the match with just six points. In the end, Ciro Ferrara's first defeat as Juventus coach may well have given Zenga a reprieve.

But that's more than can be said for Roberto Donadoni, who led Italy at Euro 2008 before being given his cards by Napoli after a disappointing start to the season, with losses to Palermo, Genoa, Inter and Roma. He was replaced by former Reggina and Sampdoria boss, Walter Mazzarri.

With renewed energy, Napoli, along with Palermo, Sampdoria, Udinese and Fiorentina could well become one of those sides guaranteed to make life difficult for the big three. We could be in for some very interesting times in Serie A.

This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of World Soccer magazine. To subscribe, click here.

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