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No Pogba, no problem: Dybala, Higuain & Juventus in a league of their own in Serie A


GOAL COMMENT

While looking ahead to the new Serie A season, AC Milan defender Luca Antonelli, argued, "Other than Juve, there aren’t many teams better than us." It was an unintentionally damning indictment of the current state of Italy's top flight. Essentially, there is Juve - and then there are the rest.

The Bianconeri have won each of the last five titles, equalling the record set by 'Il Grande Torino ' between 1943 and 1949. Nobody doubts that the Old Lady will collect a sixth successive Scudetto next summer. As former Italy international Marco Tardelli recently told the Gazzetta dello Sport , "There is no rival in Serie A for Juventus." This is in spite of the fact that this summer the Bianconeri lost their most prized possession, Paul Pogba.

However, unlike Bologna's Amadou Diawara and Torino's Nikola Maksimovic, Pogba didn't just go AWOL, he returned to Manchester United with the consent of Juve, who were compensated to the tune of €105 million for a player that they prised away from Old Trafford four years ago for just €920,000 in compensation. While the France international has not yet been directly replaced, which is a concern for a side shorn of the services of Claudio Marchisio until November at the earliest, it is likely that Juve will sign one - if not two - new midfielders before the close of the transfer market on August 31. Roma's star man Miralem Pjanic has already been purchased for a bargain price of €32m in order to bring extra technique and creativity to the middle third of the pitch.

Furthermore, the Bianconeri have already strengthened excellently elsewhere, adding depth to the best defence in the game today by signing Medhi Benatia from Bayern Munich, as well as boosting their attacking options out wide with the arrival of the still dynamic Dani Alves from Barcelona. However, Juve's most eye-catching acquisition was that of Gonzalo Higuain. Ninety million euros is an obscene amount of money for a 28-year-old but Juve believe that the Argentine attacker is capable of firing them to Champions League glory. Doubts remain over his ability to deliver on the game's grandest stages, but he is coming off the back of the most prolific single season in the history of Serie A.





Of course, it is disconcerting that he arrived in Turin carrying a few extra pounds. "I was shocked to see Higuain [turn up at Juve overweight]," exclaimed Robert Prosinecki. "He is even fatter than I! They paid €90m for him and he arrived looking like a little pig!"

However, the former Croatia international added, "They will get him fit soon." And when they do, he should form a lethal partnership with compatriot Paulo Dybala, who has picked up in pre-season where he left off last term by producing sublime strikes with a wondrous left foot. He is, as Arrigo Sacchi stated recently, "a phenomenon". Thus, the feeling is that even if Juve start the season sluggishly, as they did 12 months ago, they will once again have far too much firepower for any other side in Serie A.

Napoli, of course, threatened to challenge last season but Higuain's 36 goals (in just 35 matches!) fuelled that title tilt and the Partenopei are still looking for a worthy successor to their former idol. Arkadiusz Milik has arrived from Ajax, while Manolo Gabbiadini offered a timely reminder of his consistently overlooked quality by netting four times in a 5-0 friendly success over Monaco, but club president Aurelio De Laurentiis is still searching for a star striker to appease the club's disgruntled supporters.

The film producer has toyed with the idea of splashing €60m on Mauro Icardi but new Inter boss Frank De Boer insists that he does not want to lose the limited but lethal 23-year-old. Indeed, the Dutch coach is intent on adding quality players to his squad - not losing any. Still, Ever Banega and Antonio Candreva - two players signed before the inevitable departure of De Boer's predecessor, Roberto Mancini - already look right at home at San Siro and if Inter can wrap up a deal for Joao Mario and pick up a top-class centre-half before the window shuts, they will be reasonably well equipped to at least fight for a Champions League place.

City rivals Milan are also dreaming of a return to Europe's top table and Silvio Berlusconi's long overdue decision to finally hand over control of the club offers legitimate grounds for optimism. Whatever one thinks about Sinisa Mihajlovic's short, unsuccessful spell in charge at San Siro last season, his cause was hardly aided by a president who wanted to both run the club and the dressing room. “I can imagine how hard that must have been for him," the sympathetic Serb stated earlier this week. "He wasn't just the most successful president in the world for 30 years but also Milan's No.1 fan. The problems emerge when these two roles are no longer sufficient and you want to be the coach as well. I mean, he never kept his ideas to himself."

Thankfully, new coach Vincenzo Montella will not have to deal with such prohibitive interference. The only problem is that the money the club's new Chinese owners have promised to invest will not arrive until 2017 (€100m will be made available for the January transfer window, with a further €50m allocated for the following summer). Montella is thus in the rather unenviable position of knowing that Milan have to sell if they want to buy before the start of the new season. As a result, the Rossoneri will kick off their campaign with great uncertainty surrounding their two most valuable assets, Carlos Bacca, who hit 20 goals in all competitions last term, and Mattia De Sciglio, one of the surprise stars of Italy's Euro 2016 campaign. Montella, though, worked within tight financial restraints at Fiorentina and still managed to lead the Viola to three fourth-placed finishes in a row. His presence at the helm thus offers Milan fans genuine hope for the future.

There is also understandable excitement in the Italian capital - at least in one half of the city. Sadly, Lazio's summer was one of farce and frustration, with Marcelo Bielsa resigning as coach just two days after accepting the job. Hardly surprising, then, that just 11 season tickets were sold on the first day of sales!

Of course, Roma supporters are still upset that their beloved curva was last season divided up for safety reasons but they have, at least, taken great encouragement out of their excellent preparations for the new campaign, with the Giallorossi winning all six of their friendly fixtures before claiming a creditable 1-1 draw away to Porto in the first leg of their Champions League play-off. The battling first-leg performance in Portugal merely served to cement the impression that Luciano Spalletti is capable of building upon the excellent job he did upon returning to the Stadio Olimpico midway through last season to clean up the mess left behind by Rudi Garcia. Certainly, any side with exciting talents such as Mo Salah and Stephan El Shaarawy will be worth watching this term, while Kevin Strootman's expected return to full fitness could take the edge off Pjanic's departure.

However, the fact remains that the Bosnian's move to Juventus had much the same effect as Higuain's transfer to Turin, in that it weakened a prospective title challenger and strengthened the reigning champions. Spalletti insisted that such moves "raise the overall quality of Serie A" but while those deals have put the Bianconeri in a position to win the Champions League, they have made it impossible for anyone else to sustain a Scudetto challenge. That is not a positive situation, neither for the Old Lady nor for the league.

Sassuolo still represent a shining example of what a well-run club can achieve – it is no coincidence that they are the only top-flight club other than Juve to have their own stadium – and, having retained the services of Domenico Berardi for another season, the Neroverdi could once again embarrass many members of Italy’s supposed elite. However, it would be naïve to expect Eusebio Di Francesco’s side to put themselves in a position to ‘do a Leicester’, particularly with the added burden of European football to contend with this season.

In truth, it is up to the traditional superpowers to follow the lead set by Sassuolo and get their houses in order. If they don’t, the Italian game will continue to suffer. As Tardelli lamented, "Unfortunately, it is not just that Juve are missing a real rival, it is that Serie A is missing out overall.”