As he left his job as Juventus manager at the end of last season, Max Allegri was asked what his legacy at the club would be. He had left, he said, a side that was 90% certain to win the league this season. He was right, of course, and the result of that is that the question going into this Serie A season is less about who the potential champions are, and more about whether anybody can prevent Juve from winning a record ninth straight title. The truth is that the team most likely to stop Juventus is Juventus itself.
There is a sense almost that Juventus is bored of domestic domination. What it craves is success in the Champions League, and its focus is now very clearly on Europe. Paying $110 million for a 33-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo last summer was an extraordinary gamble to try to add the firepower necessary to bring European success, and the sense is now of the club doubling down, well aware that age will eventually catch up even with a player of Ronaldo’s supreme levels of fitness.
Paying his wages limits the budget available elsewhere, which is why, after Matthijs De Ligt was brought in from Ajax to take the baton from the veteran leaders in the back, Moise Kean was allowed to leave for Everton and there has been an obvious willingness to sell Paulo Dybala. While there has been the familiar acuity with free signings–Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot have come into the midfield from Arsenal and PSG, respectively–the failure to move on as many players as would have been preferred must be a concern.
And yet alongside that short-term, win-the-Champions-League-before-Ronaldo-is-past-it outlook, there has been the appointment of Maurizio Sarri to succeed Allegri, a coach whose career up until now has yielded only one trophy, last season’s Europa League. When he was in charge of Napoli, Sarri was involved in a number of spats with Juventus, suggesting he may not be afforded much patience–and that is a major problem given how idiosyncratic his philosophy is. Although by the end of his first season at Chelsea his players had adapted to the possession part of his style, they were a long ways from mastering the press that made his Napoli side so dynamic. Juventus may also be slow to adapt, particularly given Ronaldo is not a player who has ever shown much inclination to lead the press as Sarri’s forwards must.
Nor has Sarri ever shown much aptitude for managing the comings and goings on a squad, something essential at Juve, which clearly more players it would like to sell. And to complicate matters even further, he has contracted pneumonia and will not be in the bench for at least the first two games of the season–including one against his former side, Napoli.
Although Juve enjoys significant financial advantages over the rest of Serie A, it is perhaps not quite so much richer than the rest as its run of success would suggest. It’s benefited hugely from the shambolic leadership at Inter Milan and AC Milan. Inter, perhaps, could challenge this season under Antonio Conte. Romelu Lukaku, who has a point to prove, should add firepower, while Diego Godin, if he still has enough in his legs, will add experience and stability at the back.
Milan’s main hope this season lies in the mismanagement of the past. Although it narrowly missed out on Champions League qualification last season, Milan will not play in the Europa League either, having been banned for violations of financial fair play regulations. Its squad is inexperienced but exciting, and having a week off between games should work to its advantage–although nobody expects more than a bid for Champions League qualification.
The other serious challenger for the title is Napoli. Kostas Manolas should slot in well alongside Kalidou Koulibaly at the back, while Mexican star Hirving Lozano will add further pace to an already exciting attacking unit after his arrival from PSV Eindhoven. The biggest issue for Napoli, though, as it so often is for Carlo Ancelotti-coached sides, is maintaining the drive throughout the season–that, and not yielding six points to Juventus.
But really, however much the contenders have strengthened, the sense must be that Juve has strengthened more. Whatever broader concerns there may be about a wider strategic direction, about the expanding squad and about Sarri’s suitability for the job, the basic fact is that Juve, player for player, is clearly ahead of anybody else in Serie A. The Champions League title remains the obsession and the priority, but it would be a major surprise if Juve did not make it nine scudettos in a row.