Another season of Serie A football was kicked-off and, once again, the new campaign is defined by scandal. As a result of the ongoing match-fixing case, the scudetto-winning coach Antonio Conte is sitting out a 10-month ban and defender Emanuele Pesoli (Verona) literally sat a hunger strike in order to get a chance to answer to the allegations of his involvement in the fix. The allure of Serie A also suffered further blows as perhaps the three biggest stars of Serie A in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva (both Milan) and Ezequiel Lavezzi (Napoli) left the peninsula for the flush, green pastures of PSG.
But it wouldn’t be Italian football without some controversy, and there are matters fans of the Italian game may genuinely relish as well at the start of the new season. Italy’s success in Euro 2012 took most people by surprise and proved that with all the limitations and short-sightedness prevailing in the Italian football culture, there is definitely life in calcio yet. With the UEFA Financial Fair Play requirements kicking in soon along with the dwindling cash flows caused by, among other things, falling gate receipts, even the Italian clubs have to start looking, instead of scowling, towards the grassroots.
And there is a fair amount of exiting young talent in Serie A this season. Last season’s Serie B sensations Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli) and Ciro Immobile (Genoa) should get a fair chance to prove themselves in the top flight while striker Mattia Destro will try to follow Fabio Borini’s (now at Liverpool) footsteps at Roma. Inter’s Samuele Longo might also make a genuine push for the first team with his former youth coach Andrea Stramaccioni occupying the Inter hot seat.
After last season’s none-existent title fight, this term Juve should get a proper run for their money. Also, the battle for European places will be as heated as ever as many teams should be able to make a real push for a spot in the top five. The two key themes for 2012-13 are whether Juventus can dominate without last season’s main protagonist Conte, and how Milan’s restructuring process begins after they lost a whopping 2000 matches worth of Serie A experience in Alessandro Nesta (Montreal), Clarence Seedorf (Botafoga), Gennaro Gattuso (Sion), Gianluca Zambrotta, Ibrahimovic and Mark van Bommel (PSV). For a club that has provided a sobering contrast to the cult of youth prevailing in footall, the change is nothing short of a revolution.
With all this happening during the summer, let’s now look at how the 2012-13 season will unravel.
Despite Conte’s ban, there can be only one favourite for the title. While other challengers have burned a relatively slow flame in the transfer market, the reigning champions have strengthened the team in every department. Mauricio Isla, Kwandwo Asamoah (both Udinese) and Paul Pogba (ManU) bring steel and drive to bolster an already impressive and industrious midfield. Lucio’s transfer may seem like a strange move taking into account Juve conceded only 20 goals last term. However, considering that they use a three-man defence and have ambitious Champions League plans, signing the Brazilian veteran makes perfect sense. Sebastian Giovinco has also been brought back from Parma and will add slickness and penetration into the attacking third, something which was at times lacking last season. Juve can out pass, out run and out muscle any side in Italy, and adding the fact that the new players should fit seamlessly into the well-crafted tactical structure built by Conte, Juve should be miles ahead of their competitors at the start of the season.
Former Inter youth coach Stramaccioni did a remarkable job last season to invigorate a stale and confused Inter side after the mess that was the Gian Piero Gasperini/ Claudio Ranieri era. The 36-year-old never tried to spark a revolution but concentrated on stabilising the team. In the end, the tactician guided Inter to sixth. More of the same is expected this season. The signings are all players who have proven themselves in Serie A and are functional rather than spectacular by nature: Matias Silvestre (Palermo), Alvaro Pereira (Porto), Walter Gargano (Napoli), Freedy Guerin (Porto) and Gaby Mudingayi (Bologna) add workmanship and muscle to the defense and midfield while Robrigo Palacio (Genoa) and Antonio Cassano (Milan) bring a bit of needed flash into the attacking third (Cassano also representing the one compulsory risky attacking signing that owner Massimo Moratti needs to make each season). Most of the signings won’t probably get your pulse racing but bringing in the lot should prove to be a wise bit of business for a change for Inter. And what may be one of the most important signings of the season, Inter also replaced the erratic Julio Cesar (QPR) in goal with the highly reliable and underrated Samir Handanovic (Udinese).
If the new coach Zdenek Zeman (Pescara), returning to the club after 13 years, can instil some coherence to the fragmented ruins left by Luis Enrique, Roma can challenge for the title. This is a big if, however, since Zeman, like his Spanish predecessor, is know more for his gung-ho approach than defensive organisation. The squad is brimming with raw talent. Players like Erik Lamela and Miralem Pjanic have huge potential but had inconsistent seasons in 2011-12. Destro was solid for lowly Siena (scoring 12 goals) but the 21-year-old must lift his game to a new level to make a real splash in the capital. Attacking full-back Federico Balzaretti’s (Palermo) signing was good business. Much, perhaps too much, still depends on the talismanic Francesco Totti and especially Daniele De Rossi, who admirably turned the cold shoulder to the filthy riches of Man City.
After years of stubbornly refusing to renew the squad’s age-structure, owner Silvio Berlusconi’s patience will be put to the test this season as the club cannot put trust on the experience of old hands on the pitch. The signings are nowhere near as good as the champions that left but Riccardo Montolivo (Fiorentina), Giampaolo Pazzini (Inter) and Christian Zapata (Villareal) are all definite Serie A quality. It will be a difficult season for Milan, but they should have enough to secure a European spot.
Lavezzi, one of the most eye-catching players last season, may be gone, but Edison Cavani and Marek Hamsik are still there. Without the Argentinean Napoli have to start developing their attacking game to include something more than simply destroying defences on the counter. And this cannot be a bad thing. Expect goals from Napoli again this season.
Big name players leave by the truck-load each season, but Udinese, thanks to Francesco Guidolin as coach and the stellar scouting system, keep mixing with the big-players in Serie A. Udinese reached a magnificent third place finish last term and there is no reason why they couldn’t at least put in a similar fight for the top spots.
The Florence side had a troubling last season, in the end finishing thirteenth. They look, however, to put all that behind them this term. The solution seems to be to throw a big wad of cash at the problem but the signings are mostly quality players: Alberto Aquilani (Liverpool), David Pizzarro (Roma), Borja Valero (Villareal) and Emiliano Viviano (Palermo). The most important change in personnel though will be Vincenzo Montella (Catania) taking over as head coach. Viola fans will be hoping that the former Roma striker can bring similar stability and resilience to Fiorentina that were the trademarks of his lowly Catania side last season. There’s quality aplenty at Fiorentina again, but now they also seem to have the tactician to get something out of it.
Unfortunate it may be but Pescara are almost sure to go down immediately in their first season in Serie A in ten years. Not only losing their three best players in Immobile, Insigne and Marco Verratti (PSG), even more importantly they also lost the coach Zeman who made it all happen. And with no notable signings coming in (Vladimir Weiss brings some attacking threat but hardly represents the signing who would pull Pescara out of relegation trouble), the sympathetic side from the east coast of Italy will go down.
Siena would have all to do to keep their place in Serie A in normal circumstances, but now that they are reduced six points due to the match-fixing penalty. And it certainly doesn’t help that last season’s main man Destro is gone. Siena are almost certainly doomed for the drop.
Torino and Sampdoria
The promoted big clubs should be able to consolidate themselves as Serie A forces, but especially for Torino this seems to be an impossiblity. The joint fifth most successful team in Italy have spent the last three seasons in Serie B while Sampdoria bounced back on the first time of asking. From the two promoted clubs Torino have been the livelier in the transfer market. Alessio Cerci (Fiorentina) may prove to be a good signing but the former ManCity target must find his form from two years ago as will Matteo Brighi (Roma) after an unsuccessful loan spell at Atalanta. With little goal scoring potential at Sampdoria, a lot depends on Maxi Lopez (Catania) finding his scoring boots.
The Sardinians have enjoyed many years of relative lower mid-table calm in Serie A. However, with no notable incoming transfers during the summer, and with the relatively aged Daniele Conti and Andrea Cossu being a year older, this season may be a trickier one to negotiate.