Serie A Preview: Juventus remains favorite for a fifth league title
New coaches, a new stadium and two new teams. The Serie A season kicks off this weekend but with the same old question top of the agenda: Can anyone catch Juventus? The four-time champion also won the Coppa Italia—the first double in its history—and reached the Champions League final last season. Motivation won’t be a problem, as the challenge now is to prove it can do it without the heart of the team: Andrea Pirlo, is now at New York City FC, Arturo Vidal, sold to Bayern Munich and Carlos Tevez, with 29 goals last season, moved back to Boca Juniors.
The one player everyone expected to leave, Paul Pogba, has remained and taken the storied No. 10 shirt, whose previous owners include Michel Platini, Roberto Baggio, Alessandro del Piero and Tevez. Pogba has played in the No. 10 position in pre-season, just behind a new-look front two of Mario Mandzukic and Paolo Dybala – but Juventus is still linked to Isco, Mario Goetze and Christian Eriksen, so Pogba may yet drop back to join Claudio Marchisio and Roberto Pereyra or Sami Khedira (on a free transfer but already injured) in a three-man midfield. Alex Sandro, a dynamic fullback with a habit of stunning goals, adds to the danger on the left flank.
Coach Max Allegri proved everyone wrong when his surprise appointment late last summer ended in success. He has vowed that means nothing now and wants to create more history by completing five in a row. It's only happened twice before, with Juventus (1931-35) and Inter Milan (2006-2010, though disputed as this was after the Calciopoli scandal which saw Juventus stripped of one Scudetto).
For all the changes, Juventus remains the overwhelming favorite to win again. Its closest challenger last season was Roma, who finished 17 points back and faded badly in the second half of the season. It only clinched second spot with a Matchday 37 win over Lazio, which came third.
This is a make-or-break campaign for coach Rudi Garcia, who has signed Edin Dzeko and Mohamed Salah to boost his goal options. Long-term injury absentees Leandro Castan and Kevin Strootman should return soon (though Strootman might be delayed until October after a recent setback).
Napoli is expected to improve under new coach Maurizio Sarri, a former bank manager who impressed last season, his first in the top-flight, keeping newly promoted Empoli safe. Napoli has a good record after appointing low-profile bosses—both Ottavio Bianchi (1987) and Alberto Bigon (1990) won Serie A coming from smaller side. Sarri has already impressed owner Aurelio de Laurentiis with his work ethic and trust in his own coaching skills. “The defense will be reinforced with work on the pitch, I don’t accept the idea that you need to do it by signing players,” said Sarri. “To rely on the market is to disavow hard work.”
That’s not quite the strategy in Milan, where both clubs have brought out the checkbook in their quest to return to the top table. In fact, there has not been such spending in Italy since 2001. Juventus, Roma and the Milan clubs have spent over €320 million combined.
Milan now has Sinisa Mihajlovic, former Inter player, in charge. He has drilled the side sharply in pre-season and spent €25 million on young centerback Alessio Romagnoli, claiming he’s the new Alessandro Nesta. Encouraging by big spending at Inter, Milan has also splashed out on strikers Carlos Bacca and Luiz Adriano.
Across town, Inter coach Roberto Mancini needs to build a title challenge after spending big on Stevan Jovetic, Miranda and Geoffrey Kondogbia, a player Milan also wanted. It also sold Mateo Kovacic to Real Madrid, amid fears that he would be the latest player Inter sold who went on to be successful elsewhere: like Roberto Carlos at Real Madrid and Andrea Pirlo at AC Milan. “Andrea left because the club did not have the patience to wait for him to mature, and then he became the player everyone knew he would,” said former Inter hero Luis Suarez. “Kovacic has the quality to become the new Pirlo. And don’t tell me he struggles in the defensive phase because at the same age Pirlo defended badly, but then improved in that aspect of his game.” Which team finishes higher in Milan will provide a compelling sub-plot to the season.
This also marks the first Serie A appearances for Capri and Frosinone, the first time since 1964 that two top-flight debutants have made it at the same time.
The Italian football federation has implemented an 8-in-25 rule which states that of each 25-man squad, a minimum of four players must have been trained by the club, and another four in Italy. After the emergence in recent seasons of young talent like Daniele Rugani (Juventus) and Domenico Berardi (Sassuolo), there are hopes that more young talent will get its chance this season. Look out for Federico Bernardeschi (Fiorentina), Andrea Belotti (Torino) and Rodrigo Ely (Milan).
At the other end of the scale is Francesco Totti, who scored one and set up two goals in a recent friendly against Valencia. He is about to enter his 24th season at Roma. Antonio Cassano is back at Sampdoria, on a reduced salary and a clause allowing the club to take action in case he repeats any “Cassanate,” the acts of self-destruction that have peppered his career. Last year’s joint-top scorer, with 22 goals, is Luca Toni, 38, who will form part of the oldest strike-force in Italy alongside Giampaolo Pazzini, 31, at Verona. Only the hardest of hearts won’t want to see the old boys show they can they still do it.