Calcio Debate: Can A Team From Outside Serie A's Big Four Win The Scudetto This Season?

Inter have lost their Swedish get-out-of-jail free card. Milan seem to be on the verge of disintegration. Juventus are untested and unproven. And Roma are skint.'s Gil Gillespie wonders if it is time for one of Italy's less fancied clubs to mount a serious challenge for the title...

It hasn't happened since 1991. That was the year when a Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli inspired Sampdoria finished the season a full five points ahead of the two Milan giants to win their first ever Scudetto. Unless you count the season when Sven Goran Eriksson's super-rich Lazio side won the championship in 2000, the Blucerchiati's triumph, almost 20 years ago, was the last time a less fashionable, more provincial, Serie A club won the league title.

It wasn't always this way.

Seeing a less familiar name at the top of the table used to be a regular, albeit sporadic, happening in days gone by. Fiorentina did it in '69, Gigi Riva's Cagliari repeated the trick the following season, Torino recaptured some of their pre-Superga invincibility in 1976 and, perhaps most sensationally of all, Diego Maradona's Napoli lifted the Scudetto not once, but twice, in 1987 and 1990.

But ever since the expansion of the Champions League and all the extra money that comes with it, the idea that a club from outside the elite in any of Europe's strongest domestic leagues winning the title has almost disappeared from football's collective consciousness.

The game, as the club owners and the marketeers and the agents and the tabloid hacks delight in telling us, is all about money these days. Football, they say, is a business.

Except that there have been a few surprises that have bucked this trend of late; Wolfsburg lifting the Bundesliga, Bordeaux winning the French league, Shakhtar Donetsk taking the UEFA Cup.
And while Spain's Primera Division may be snatching many of the superstars and much of the limelight away from the Premier League, Serie A is beginning to look like the competition most likely to actually feature good old fashioned competitive depth this season.

Competition? Sure, you remember that don't you?

The levelling of the playing field in the Italian top flight has been happening for a few years now but during this summer the steamroller has really been flattening out some of the more obvious advantages held by the super-clubs.

Inter, champions for the last four consecutive seasons, have lost the player who had so often been their saviour. Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored 57 goals in 88 appearances for the club and always seemed to pop up to snatch victory right off the tongue of defeat and transform an ordinary team performance into a satisfying three points. What are Jose Mourinho's side going to do without the unconventional Swedish superstar? There is a very real sense that the Nerazzurri may have just sold their lucky charm. Now they are going to have to gel as a team and win games because they deserve to, just like everybody else.

If Inter have been dented, city neighbours Milan are knocking at the gates of the scrap yard demanding to be let in.

Just what is going on at the club that Silvio Berlusconi once adored so much? Not content with losing their iconic captain and moral steering wheel Paolo Maldini to retirement, and their long-serving coach Carlo Ancelotti to Chelsea, the Rossoneri have also persuaded their most gifted attacking superstar, Kaka, to move to Real Madrid and are currently in the process of deciding how much money they can get for vital midfield lynchpin Andrea Pirlo. As for investments, well they have picked up a couple of centre-backs, one from north America and one from its southern namesake. If the performances, and the results, of Leonardo's side in pre-season are anything to go by, Milan will do well to finish in the Europa League qualification places next May.

Juventus, somewhat conversely, are the one traditional super-team that look all fresh and bursting with new players, ideas and enthusiasm. They are the only one of the big four in Serie A who have made some terrific looking signings in the close season. But lets not forget, that while Diego and Melo might look like potential title-clinchers at the moment, the former hasn't actually set foot in the razor sharp and smartly cynical world of Calcio yet. It can still provide the toughest baptism in world football.

Are Juve title favourites? Maybe. But lets not get too carried away until we've seen Ciro Ferrara's charges in a competitive game.

The last of the big four clubs are, of course, Roma. Sadly, Rosella Sensi simply does not have the funds to turn what was a hugely promising team a few years ago into anything approaching the finished article now. In fact, Roma are treading water just when they should be making a bigger splash. They may even be resigned to losing Alberto Aquilani and Mirko Vucinic before the new campaign begins.

So, what's clear is that every one of Serie A's giants are showing signs of vulnerability as the new season approaches. This, however, would mean very little if the teams from the middle of the table were suffering  similar plights.

But Genoa, Palermo, Napoli and Sampdoria all look as though they are improving on a year-by-year basis. And some of these middleweights have added yet more class to their squads in the transfer window and will have good reason to believe that they can improve on last season.  

And it's Palermo, in particular, who look the best equipped to mount an assault on the dominance of the big four and it is the Sicilian’s who have also been making the most noise about doing so.

The arrivals of 20-year-old Argentine sensation Javier Pastore and Nicolas Bertolo from Banfield have added fuel to the clubs already smoking fire. Pastore, in particular, is a hugely exciting prospect and he is being hotly tipped to become one of the hottest properties on the continent. Add these two to top striking partners Edinson Cavani and Fabrizio Miccoli and the likes of Simon Kjaer and under-rated midfielder Fabio Simplicio and it's easy to see why the club are so full of confidence.  

New Rosanero coach Walter Zenga set the tone by declaring that his side were capable of challenging Inter for the title this season. And his boss, club president Maurizio Zamparini, has been vocalising his approval of this claim in typically scattershot style.

"It’s about time we stopped accepting our roles as sparring partners for the big three," Zamparini announced to the media recently.

“Ultimately, the big clubs aren’t as big as they once were.”

Is he correct? Italy coach Marcello Lippi seems to think that he might be.

"Why can't Palermo win the Scudetto? I agree with Zenga," noted the World Cup winning tactician.

Although it may be a little premature to be talking about a club like Palermo winning the Scudetto, what Serie A might be moving towards is a situation that used to exist in the late 1980s and early 90s, when there were seven or eight big teams in Italy, all of whom were capable of finishing in the top four positions at the end of season.

If this does prove to be the case, then all the talk about the demise of Serie A can be forgotten, because it will be the purest and most competitive of any of the major leagues in Europe.

Gil Gillespie,