The consensus seems to be that the Premier League is no longer what it was. Gone are the days when three Champions League semi-finalists were routinely from these shores, so too the regular sight of an English representative in the final, which occurred in four consecutive seasons from 2006 to 2009. The current diagnosis of England’s top flight has been explained largely with reference to two particular global developments. Firstly, the rise of the Bundesliga – evidenced by the terrific performances of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in last season’s Champions League, which culminated in a pulsating final between the German pair – has shown that the strength of clubs at the highest level is not incompatible with fan ownership and affordable ticket prices. And secondly, the newly attractive proposition of Ligue 1 and its billionaire-backed Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain has suggested that, for the first time in years, top targets such as Radamel Falcao, Edinson Cavani and James Rodríguez are out of reach for England’s major outfits.
It is always intriguing to see how the same events can be interpreted differently by those of other perspectives, and both of these issues have indeed had an altogether contrary effect on Italian calcio. The steady success of German sides in Europe saw Italy lose one of its four Champions League places ahead of last season, whilst the Qatari-owned PSG h
ave chosen Serie A as their favoured supermarket, Cavani and Marquinhos the latest to cross the border and join Marco Verratti, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Salvatore Sigiru, Javier Pastore, Esequel Lavezzi and Thiago Silva in swapping Italy for France. Although the two episodes may hint at a major weakening of the Italian league, they in fact make this season the most eagerly-anticipated in recent years: with just three Champions League spots up for grabs, competition promises to be fierce, and the incoming funds – PSG reimbursed Serie A with £82.5 million for Cavani and Marquinhos, and Fiorentina received £22 million for the sale of Stevan Jovetic to Manchester City – have been spent extremely well by their respective recipients.
Four sides harbour realistic title aspirations ahead of the new campaign, and in that respect Serie A is unique amongst the major top-flights of Europe. Napoli, runner-ups last time out, have lost coach Walter Mazzurri to Inter as well as Cavani to PSG, yet appear to be to in a stronger position to challenge for the scudetto. Rafa Benitez has wasted little time in moulding his own side: Gonzalo Higuaín is a terrific (if slightly overpriced) signing from Real Madrid, and Pepe Reina, Raúl Albiol and Dries Mertens are also shrewd additions.
The biggest issue for the Partenopei will lie in the switch from Mazzurri’s 3-5-2 to Benitez’s preferred 4-2-3-1, but a favourable fixture list early on should allow them to find their feet. Lorenzo Insigne is currently the most exciting prospect in Italy, yet it will be interesting to see if Benitez’s system can get the best out of him, Marek Hamšik and Goran Pandev: with the arrival of Mertens and José Callejón, it remains unclear who the former Liverpool manager’s favoured personnel are in attacking positions. Another potential problem lies at full-back, where Juan Zúñiga, Christian Maggio and Pablo Armero are all suspect defensively. Overall though, Benitez has a fine squad and Napoli will be expected to strengthen their challenge this year, having finished nine points behind champions Juventus last term.
Milan can point to a terrific second half to the 2012/13 season as the reason why they can top the pile this year. Having lost Ibrahimovic, Silva, Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf and Gennaro Gattuso last summer, the Rossoneri’s slow start was inevitable, yet they were resurgent from the turn of the year onwards, losing only one of their remaining twenty games to steal the final Champions League spot. The decision to stick with Massimo Allegri through that tough spell – which saw Milan languishing in 15th position at one stage – was as surprising as it was admirable: Italian owners are not known for their patience, with thirteen managers leaving their posts last season.
The unequivocal move towards youth has continued this summer, with new signings Riccardo Saponara and Jherson Vergara joining academy products Andrea Petagna and Bryan Cristante as young members of the squad. Mario Balotelli was a vital purchase in January, whilst the return of Nigel de Jong from injury will provide Milan with solidity in the centre of the park; although the Dutchman is not a midfielder who dictates the play, he will shield the centre-back pairing of Philipe Mexès and Cristian Zapata effectively, allowing the more creative Andrea Poli and Riccardo Montolivo to flourish free from defensive duty. Milan will be further boosted by the likely arrival of Keisuke Honda in January and are already showing clear signs of progress with the likes of Balotelli, Stephan El-Shaarawy and Mattea De Sciglio, who are all under 23. The title, however, will be a big ask for a young side short on experience.
Fiorentina were undoubtedly the best team to watch in Serie A last season and are this year’s dark horses for the scudetto, having narrowly missed out on Champions League qualification in the final ten minutes of 2012/13. The loss of Joveti? has been countered with the coup of the summer, £17 million Mario Gomez from Bayern Munich; the two forwards are markedly different, Joveti? a scheming creator who often drifts wide and deep in search of the ball, Gomez a physical centre-forward who comes alive in the penalty box, yet both are fine players and the latter should slot easily into Fiorentina’s 4-3-3 system. Gomez has a phenomenal goalscoring record (63 in 121 for Stuttgart, 75 in 115 for Bayern) and will provide a focal point for the Viola’s support cast, which now includes fellow new boys Joaquin from Malaga and Josip Ilicic from Parma.
Massimo Ambrosini is a clever acquisition, giving manager Vicenzo Montella the option of tenacity and aerial ability in his midfield trio: Alberto Aqualani, David Pizarro and Borja Valero, the favoured three last term, are all very technical players adept at playing Fiorentina’s possession-based game, yet the Tuscans missed a tough-tackling alternative when up against the division’s better sides, winning just once against Napoli, Juventus and Milan, teams who competed with them for control of the ball. If he stays fit, Paolo Rossi will fulfil the proverbial role of ‘feeling like a new signing’ and will jostle with Joaquin, Ilicic and Adem Ljajic – who has been retained despite a bid from Milan – for the two positions off Gomez, whilst veteran Gustavo Munúa should solve the goalkeeping problem in the short-term. Squad depth could be a problem if Montella takes the Europa League seriously, but Fiorentina appear well-placed to mount a strong title challenge.
Trentuno sul campo, Juventus fans insist defiantly. Thirty-one on the pitch. The Old Lady’s latest championship win in May was actually their twenty-ninth Serie A title after they were stripped of two scudetti for their not insignificant role in the 2006 Calciopoli scandal, yet fans of the Turin giants insist the club will be aiming for their thirty-second in this campaign. The incoming strikers Fernando Llorente and Carlos Tevez do little to harm that prospect, Antonio Conte addressing his side’s major weakness with a pair of excellent purchases. Tevez, in particular, is a brilliant tactical addition: willing and able to lead the line, work the channels or link the play, the Argentine is highly versatile and could feasibly partner Mirko Vucinic, Sebastian Giovinco or Llorente and still perform excellently. To accommodate the midfield quartet of Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba, Conte regularly played with just a single striker last season, a role that Tevez could also execute with aplomb, dropping deep in search of the ball and allowing the energetic Vidal and powerful Pogba to bomb past him as Pirlo creates from deep and Marchisio breaks up opponents’ attacks before making late runs into the area.
Llorente and Tevez remains the most likely combination though, with Pogba the one to make way. The aforementioned midfield is amongst the best on the continent and the three-man defence remains watertight: marshalled by Giorgio Chiellini, arguably the world’s greatest centre-half, Juve conceded just 24 goals last season and have been further bolstered by the signing of Angelo Ogbonna from city rivals Torino. Quick and strong, Ogbonna also had the division’s best pass completion rate last year, suggesting he will be comfortable with receiving the ball short from Buffon as Juventus build attacks from the back. The Old Lady rightly start as favourites once more, but they will not find things as easy as the previous two campaigns, particularly if – as expected – their focus drifts towards progressing further in the Champions League.
As far as the best of the rest are concerned, Roma are perhaps the strongest outsiders for a top three finish. Persuading PSG to part with £27 million for the talented but inexperienced Marquinhos was some feat, regardless of the French side’s limitless resources, and has allowed the Giallorossi to hold onto Daniele De Rossi, Serie A’s highest-paid player. De Rossi is just one representative of a very strong midfield, which also includes Michael Bradley, Miralem Pjanic and new signing Kevin Strootman, a target for Manchester United this summer. Mehdi Benetia, one of Serie A’s best defenders, has been acquired from Udinese to try and shore up a defence that conceded 56 goals last season – more than relegated Palermo – and there is hope in the capital that new boss Rudi Garcia can surprise a few people, much like he did when leading Lille to the 2011 Ligue 1 title.
After last year’s ninth-place finish, their lowest since 1994, Inter will find it extremely difficult to return to the competition they won under Jose Mourinho in 2010. Walter Mazzuri’s new side will likely take some time to adapt to his 3-5-2 formation; Inter have looked far from convincing in pre-season, a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Valencia a particular lowlight. Samir Handanovic is probably the division’s top goalkeeper and the defence looks solid enough, but Inter will largely be relying upon youngsters Mauro Icardi and Ishak Belfodil up front until Diego Milito returns from injury, and midfielders Esteban Cambiasso, Zdravko Kuzmanovic and Ricardo Álvarez are inferior to many of their close rivals’ counterparts. Lazio, similarly, cannot match the overall strength of the league’s top outfits and will be further damaged by the loss of Modibo Diakite to Sunderland, a horrendously difficult start to the season and club captain Stefano Mauri’s sixth-month ban for failing to report approaches he received to rig the Biancocelesti’s final two games of the 2010/11 season. Parma, with new recruit Antonio Cassano, could be this year’s surprise package.
Clichés of Catenaccio and reactivity are now, for the most part, lazy and outdated. Serie A’s best sides regularly produce some excellent football and, most interestingly last season, it was played in different ways: Napoli counter-attacked, Fiorentina built possession, Roma attacked relentlessly. Managerial changes mean that styles will again shift, but there is no doubting that Italian teams are getting stronger and, whilst they may not yet match up to the best England, Germany and Spain have to offer quality-wise, the league looks set to be Europe’s most competitive. Persuading players like Carlos Tevez, Mario Gomez and Gonzalo Higuaín – all in their twenties – to ply their trade in Italy is a clear sign of progress, and it is refreshing to see four or five clubs with a genuine chance of lifting the league title. Italian football is certainly on the rise again. Just no-one mention the match-fixing.