Serie A preview: Juventus face new challenges for fourth straight title
Last season, Juventus won Serie A by 17 points. The season before, Juventus won Serie A by nine points. The season before that, Juventus won Serie A by four points. Juventus is the best-placed Italian club (ninth overall) in the 2014 Deloitte Money League, a ranking of Europe's top-earning clubs. It’s Italy's biggest club and recent record suggests it has the best squad. The only question in Serie A is whether anybody can prevent Juve making it four in a row.
However, Juve has lost arguably its biggest asset, as manager Antonio Conte has departed to take change of the Italian national team. The change of tone at Juventus will be stark; Conte's intense, brooding presence on the touchline has been replaced by Massimiliano Allegri, a far gentler, more urbane manager. Given that Conte went through the first of his three seasons unbeaten and set a points record last year, Allegri can’t really be expected to surpass his achievements. Then again, it was Allegri who won the last title before the beginning of the Juve domination, leading AC Milan to the Scudetto in 2011, which has looked an ever greater achievement as time has gone by.
"It`s up to us to show now that, after three years of Conte, we can still do it without his shouting," said the midfielder Claudio Marchisio. "We`ve got better in these three years and Allegri has inherited a squad which has come a long way. Allegri is calm and has his own character but that doesn`t mean to say we work less.”
Summer signings have been modest – Patrice Evra has arrived from Manchester United and Alvaro Morata from Real Madrid, although he has a knee injury and will be out until mid-September. But the biggest player-realted issue heading into Juventus' Serie A season is probably Arturo Vidal. The Chilean midfielder has been a driving force at the club for three seasons, but he is the subject of serious interest from Manchester United. Even if the Chilean is not sold, there is the issue of his knee; he struggled with it during the World Cup and it’s not clear how much it is still inconveniencing him.
Juve have brought in three young central midfielders – Stefano Sturaro from Genoa, Luca Marrone from Sassuolo and, on loan, Roberto Pereyra from Udinese – and there’s talk of Shinji Kagawa going to Turin in part exchange, so Juve have some sort of cover, but Vidal would still represent a significant loss.
"We have always done great things and I am sure we can continue that with Allegri," said the Juventus owner John Elkann. "He feels profoundly connected to Juventus and confessed to me he has always been a Bianconeri fan. A new era begins and it will certainly be ambitious. The fans' aims are to win the Champions League and defend our league title. Juve has the same ones, we have won a lot in the past and now our aim is still the same.”
Winning the Champions League looks a long way off and, despite an impressive pre-season, even retaining Serie A may be more of a challenge than it has been the last three seasons.
The positive for Juve is that its rivals may not have strengthened quite enough. Roma, which surprised many by finishing second last season, has copied Juventus by picked up an aging left-back from the Premier League. But Roma's Ashley Cole, despite his lack of game time last season with Chelsea, probably represents a securer investment than Evra. Roma’s stand-out signing is the defender Kostas Manolas, plucked from under the noses of Arsenal for £10million. The problem is that he is replacing Mehdi Benatia, who’s moved to Bayern Munich, denying Roma not only his defensive ability but also his capacity for creating play from the back. Roma added further experience with Seydou Keita, though the 34-year-old will surely only be a squad option for Rudi Garcia. Other new arrivals Urby Emanuelson and Juan Iturbe will add depth.
The other realistic challenger for the Scudetto is Napoli. It finished seven points behind Roma last season, perhaps a slightly disappointing showing given the club's spending. That said, losing Edinson Cavani was going to unsettle any side, even if it could replace him with Gonzalo Higuain, and it may be that with another year to get used to Rafa Benitez and his obsessive methods, Napoli could be more consistent this time round. The club also signed Villareal's Jonathan de Guzman after his year on loan at Swansea City, and Swans teammate Michu will travel with de Gizman to play for Napoli on a season-long loan of his own. Both should add technical quality and flair in midfield, even if it’s not immediately clear how they will dovetail with Marek Hamsik or Dries Mertens.
“We’ve worked to close the gap on Roma, Juve, Milan, Inter and Fiorentina and we registered record points and goals last season,” said Benitez. “We are in development — but we aren’t intimidated by anyone. We are good enough to compete for the Scudetto. This title would be my most difficult achievement.”
Inter has quietly strengthened its squad, bringing in defender Nemanja Vidic along with midfielders Gary Medel and Rene Krhin. It should challenge for Champions League qualification, as might Fiorentina, which has so far held on to the exciting Colombian winger Juan Cuadrado. AC Milan, meanwhile, having offloaded Mario Balotelli and Kaka as its downsizing continues, looks destined for a season of struggle under Pippo Inzaghi.
Juventus remains the favorite, but it may find things rather harder this season than in the recent past.