By Carlo Garganese
Fashionably late, as always, the new Italian Serie A season is finally upon us. It has been a summer of thrills and spills in the transfer market - big names such as Gonzalo Higuain, Carlos Tevez and Mario Gomez arriving, but some formidable figures in the shape of Edinson Cavani, Marquinhos and Stevan Jovetic departing.
Having won the last two Scudetti, Juventus are red-hot favourites to become only the fourth post-war team to claim three successive Italian league titles. With the meanest backline in Italy, the peninsula's best playmaker in Andrea Pirlo and Europe's most ferocious ball-winner in Arturo Vidal, it will take some effort for the Bianconeri to be toppled from their throne. Especially as Antonio Conte's squad is even stronger this term following the acquisitions of Tevez, Fernando Llorente and Angelo Ogbonna.
So who can challenge Juventus for the 2013-14 Scudetto? The main contenders are listed below ...
Napoli are considered by most experts, including Marcello Lippi, as the anti-Juve – the most realistic challenger to the Bianconeri's crown. It is easy to see why, after charismatic president Aurelio De Laurentiis oversaw a summer revolution in Campania. Rafa Benitez was brought in to replace Walter Mazzarri as coach and the former Liverpool and Valencia boss has splashed the cash in the transfer market.
Despite losing star man Edinson Cavani to Paris Saint-Germain for a whopping €64 million, Napoli are Europe's fourth-biggest spenders this summer – securing the talents of Real Madrid trio Gonzalo Higuain, Raul Albiol and Jose Callejon, PSV livewire Dries Mertens and Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina.
Offensively, Napoli have all the tools required to run Juventus very close. The likes of Higuain, Lorenzo Insigne, Goran Pandev, Marek Hamsik and Mertens will create and score numerous goals, and the Partenopei will be especially dangerous on the counterattack.
However, while Benitez will bring about a tactical improvement, Napoli may not be strong enough defensively to maintain a Scudetto challenge. Christian Maggio and Pablo Armero are not naturally suited to a four-man defence, while the current centre-back options are ordinary. A top-class holding midfielder may also be required. Unless these areas are addressed before the close of the transfer window, then Napoli will probably fall short of improving on last year's second-place finish.
For the second year running, AC Milan have endured a rather frustrating summer. Only the arrivals of relative midfield youngsters Riccardo Saponara (from Empoli) and Andrea Poli (from Sampdoria) – who both have the potential to be fine acquisitions - have offered fans hope.
On the positive side, Milan boast Serie A's best attacker in Mario Balotelli. Should the Euro 2012 star improve his understanding with partner Stephan El Shaarawy – and there were finally good signs earlier this week against PSV – then the Rossoneri will cause defences all kinds of problems this term. The centre of midfield is solid, with Nigel de Jong back from injury, and Ignazio Abate and Matteo De Sciglio are Italy's strongest full-back combination.
However, there are too many gaping holes in other areas of the pitch for Milan to aim for any more than a Champions League spot in 2013-14. The Rossoneri are still crying out for at least one top-class centre-back, having lost the legendary Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva a year ago, while goalkeeper Christian Abbiati recently turned 36.
With coach Massimiliano Allegri persisting with the somewhat outdated 4-3-1-2 formation, Kevin-Prince Boateng lacks the fantasy and technique to interpret the trequartista role. Adriano Galliani needs to perform one of his late market-miracles for Milan to reach Juventus' level.
If there is one guarantee about the 2013-14 Serie A season, it is that Fiorentina will play the most exciting football. The Viola wowed audiences last term with their tiki-taka style and controversially missed out on Champions League qualification in the closing minutes of the season.
Despite losing top scorer Jovetic to Manchester City, Fiorentina have improved after somehow pulling off the transfer coup of the summer in signing Bayern forward Gomez. The arrivals of Palermo's Josip Ilicic, Malaga's Joaquin and Milan veteran Massimo Ambrosini only adds further depth to a midfield already brimming with quality.
With the outstanding David Pizarro and Borja Valero pulling the strings, Fiorentina are guaranteed to monopolise possession against most opposition. And with Gomez – a good shout to be Capocannoniere – Giuseppe Rossi, Adem Ljajic (should he stay) and Serie A's best dribbler, Juan Cuadrado, supplying the firepower, the Tuscans are a darkhorse for the Scudetto.
Fiorentina's problems, like Napoli, are in defence – regardless of whether Vincenzo Montella plays with three or four at the back. Centrally, only Gonzalo Rodriguez can be trusted, while Stefan Savic has been a horror-show in pre-season. Handing inexperienced Brazilian goalkeeper Neto the first team gloves is also a risk.
Never have expectations at Appiano Gentile been so low going into a new season as they are right now. Indeed, this is the weakest Inter squad since president Massimo Moratti bought the club in 1995. The oil tycoon, after years of heavy spending, has undergone a series of cost-cutting measures as he prepares to potentially sell (part of) the club.
The wage bill has been cut with the departures of Wesley Sneijder (in January) and Antonio Cassano, and a squad has been built around young, up-and-coming starlets such as summer signings Mauro Icardi, Ishak Belfodil, Saphir Taider, Wallace and Diego Laxalt.
The only two players on Inter's roster who offer immediate guarantees at the highest level are goalkeeper Samir Handanovic and forward Rodrigo Palacio. Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovacic looks like a star of the future and could very well explode this term, but in all truth the best the Nerazzurri can probably hope for this season is a Europa League place.
New coach Walter Mazzarri must be wondering why he swapped Naples for Milan!
|ROMA & LAZIO
Until several days ago, the mood around Trigoria was positive. Despite the sale of arguably the world's best teenage defender, Marquinhos, to PSG for €32m, Roma were looking in good shape ahead of the new season, having signed Udinese centre back Mehdi Benatia and Dutch midfield enforcer Kevin Strootman.
However, the quality in new Roma coach Rudi Garcia's squad has since taken a fatal hit following the departure of Pablo Osvaldo to Southampton and the seemingly imminent exit of Erik Lamela to Tottenham. In two fell swoops, the Giallorossi have gone from possessing the best attack in Serie A to arguably the weakest and thinnest of the teams in this review. Gervinho and the mooted replacements for Osvaldo and Lamela – who include Demba Ba and Alessandro Matri – are a big step backwards.
While Roma still boast an abundance of top-class centre midfielders, a Champions League spot will be a tough ask. Two years on from Serie A's first foreign takeover, the American project is close to being branded a failure.
As for their city rivals, Lazio enter the 2013-14 season on the back of an unremarkable transfer market. The Coppa Italia holders have, however, retained all of their first team players and the signing of regular Argentina midfielder Lucas Biglia from Anderlecht is a fine acquisition.
The 4-0 thumping by Juventus in the Supercoppa Italiana highlighted a number of weaknesses, particularly in the centre of defence, where Giuseppe Biava and Andre Dias are ageing fast. But with the ageless Miroslav Klose and the likes of Hernanes and Antonio Candreva – not to mention a top class coach in Vladimir Petkovic – this settled Lazio team will continue to trouble more individually-gifted outfits. A Champions League spot is unlikely, but not completely out of the question.
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