The Serie A returns for another season with last year’s champions, Internazionale, sitting loftily atop the footballing world having completed an unprecedented treble with a 2-0 victory over Bayern München in Madrid. That achievement’s catalyst, manager Jose Mourinho, has departed for the vacant post at the Bernabéu and has been replaced with Champions League winning manager Rafael Benítez. Inter’s is not the only managerial change of the off-season, with more than half (11) of Serie A’s teams replacing their managers. The managerial maneuvering is perhaps symptomatic of a league unsure of its place amongst Europe’s elite. Revenues and attendances are rising, albeit slowly, but still lag far behind Europe’s other marquee competitions.
The doubt surrounding the Serie A was alleviated somewhat by Inter’s triumph. Rafael Benítez inherits a tremendous squad with depth in every position. What tangible differences will we see in Benítez’s Nerazzurri? For a start, Benítez has made no secret of his intention to change Inter’s tactics. The former Liverpool manager has vowed to utilise his squad’s ability to play a captivating brand of possession football as opposed to the supposedly ‘negative’, counter-attacking style encouraged by Mourinho.
Crucially, Inter have fended off outside interest in many of their key players, Maicon and Wesley Sneijder for example, and it is these two players who will be possibly the most important part in Inter’s quest for a sixth consecutive Scudetto. Maicon and Sneijder were at the forefront of Inter’s success last season, laying on eighteen assists and ten league goals between them. They will need to provide a similar output this coming season. It remains to be seen whether Mario Balotelli will complete a transfer to Manchester City. Should ‘Super Mario’ depart, Inter will be deprived of only one of a horde of attacking talents with Samuel Eto’o, Diego Milito and Goran Pandev all remaining. These near-irrepressible talents combined with a balanced midfield and a notoriously resolute back-four see Inter start the season as favourites once again.
Their main challenge, as was the case last year, is likely to come from the eternal city. In 2009/2010 Roma, led by Claudio Ranieri, embarked on a twenty-four game unbeaten run which, until it was ended by Sampdoria, brought them to the brink of their fourth scudetto. With so many other teams undergoing managerial changes, the continuity provided under Ranieri may be to the Giallorossi‘s benefit. The squad itself is a settled one, with Brazilians Adriano and Fabio Simpícío the sole purchases to date. The creative influence of Jeremy Menez and David Pizzaro will provide the ammunition for a potential tridente of Adriano, Totti and Vucinic. Daniele De Rossi must be prepared to continue to exert his increasing influence as Roma’s brilliant, yet aging, talisman Francesco Totti reaches the end of his career. The uncertainty surrounding the club’s financial future has been a worrying facet to the club’s preseason. The Sensi family, who have been forced to sell the club, have been unable to find any owners as of yet. The instability created by the current situation may serve as an unnecessary distraction for Roma, which needs luck in its favour if they are to have any hope of usurping Inter’s throne.
The only other side capable of mounting a serious challenge to Inter’s monopolistic dominance are Inter’s San Siro rivals, AC Milan. The aging Milan staged a valiant title challenge last season before falling away as the season concluded. New manager Massimo Allegri is far more likely to play ball with Silvio Berlusconi’s insistence on fielding two strikers, with Pato and Boriello likely to form a strike force supported by the rejuvenated Ronaldinho in the hole. Andrea Pirlo has struggled in recent years and his midfield partners, Ambrosini and Seedorf, are equally suspect. This is not Milan’s greatest problem. The 38 goals conceded in 2009/2010 was Rossoneri‘s worst defensive effort since they finished sixth in 2001. Milan have once again failed to bolster their back-four, with Sokratis Papastathopoulos their only additon to a beleaguered backline.
In contrast to the declining Milan, younger teams are chasing a place in the Champions League. Sampdoria pipped Sicilian side Palermo to fourth spot last season but will face a difficult challenge in fending off the reemerging Napoli. The Neapolitans have strengthened considerably despite being in Serie C as recently as 2005. Manager Walter Mazzarri has added Uruguayan World Cup star Edinson Cavani to an already convincing squad. Defensively, Mazzarri’s side may need to improve if they are to finish in the top four but with their enviable arsenal of forwards, reaching the objective of Champions League football is a distinct possibility.
Champions League football evaded La Signora Vecchia this season. Juventus, now managed by Luigi Del Neri, were left to rue one of the most deplorable seasons in the club’s celebrated history. The holders of an unparalleled twenty-seven scudetti had appeared to be approaching this summer with the intent of revamping an uninspiring squad. The predicted transfer clamour has, thusfar, never materialised apart from the acquisitions of Jorge Martínez and Fabio Cannavaro’s replacement, Leonardo Bonucci. With goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon injured for at least the first three months of the season, Juventus may struggle for leadership and guidance under their new manager. Unless further transfers of genuine quality are made, it is foreseeable that Juventus will flounder behind their rivals yet again.
If Juventus underperformed last season, the same may be said of Fiorentina, Lazio and Udinese. These three sides have both the players and the infrastructure to challenge for places in European competition instead of languishing towards the bottom of the table. Udinese, in particular, should improve dramatically. Only the goals of Capocannoniere winner Antonio Di Natale prevented Udinese from potential relegation. Di Natale will continue to lead the Zebrette‘s forwards and will be supported by the midfield duo of the incisive Gaetano D’Agostino and bustling Ghanaian virtuoso Kwadwo Asamoah, while Chilean duo Mauricio Isla and Alexis Sánchez offer both creativity and attacking energy. If the potential of these key components is realised under the instruction of Francesco Guidolin, then a top six finish is not beyond Udinese.
Top Four – 1. Internazionale, 2. Roma, 3. Milan, 4. Napoli
Europa League – 5. Sampdoria, 6. Juventus, 7. Palermo
Relegation – 18. Bologna, 19. Brescia, 20. Cesena
Capocannoniere – Diego Milito (Internazionale)
Players to Watch – Jeremy Menez (Roma), Kwadwo Asamoah (Udinese), Alberto Paloschi (Parma)