The megamoney signings may be a thing of the past, but calcio’s collection of crackpots and continued move towards sexy football more than make up for it.
What’ s new?
Serie A’s attempts to get its house in order sees the introduction of a new anti-racism ruling, that could see players banned for up to 10 games and partial closure of grounds (as well as a €50,000 fine). Also, clubs must now disclose details of the stadium where they will play their home games; this is on the back of the farcical situation with Cagliari last season, who ended up using the Stadio Nereo Rocco, in Trieste, some 500 miles away.
As is often the way, Juventus lead the pack when it come to big-name arrivals. Having captured lanky Spain frontman Fernando Llorente (right) from Athletic Bilbao on a free, The Old Lady swapped Ł12m for Carlos Tevez, and in doing so securing a potentially lethal strike force. Otherwise it’s been another summer of high-profile departures from Italy, the biggest being Edinson Cavani’s decision to join Paris Saint-Germain from Napoli. Serie A doesn’t quite do glitzy signings like it used to.
The race for the title
Everything points to a reinforced Juve strutting to their third title on the bounce, but the Turin club’s focus on Europe could yet see them slip up domestically. Should they do so, expect Napoli, even without Cavani, to head a tight chasing pack, along with Fiorentina, Milan and, just possibly, Roma.
Inter had an absolute stinker last season, but now under former Napoli coach Walter Mazzarri, and with an injection of fresh young blood, they should start showing signs of life once more. Lazio and Udinese will expect to be in the hunt, but don’t discount Catania as a potential surprise package; ditto Parma, if Roberto Donadoni can coax some consistency out of Antonio Cassano after two typically troubled seasons in Milan.
Mid-table nowhere men
Out of the new boys, Hellas Verona, back in the top flight for the first time since 2002, are probably best equipped to establish a mid-table beachhead, and may even nip ahead of city rivals Chievo. Genoa, despite a near-fatal fourth-from-bottom finish last season, should be able to dig in too, along with local foes Atalanta and Sampdoria.
Battling at the bottom
Last season’s loanee striker Alberto Gilardino will leave a sizeable hole in the Bologna attack and the Rossoblu will doubtless struggle. Similarly, Torino and Cagliari could pay dearly for selling key players, while promoted Livorno and Sassuolo, despite the latter’s goodwill among neutrals, face a long old slog.
The next big thing
The Azzurrini’s impressive showing at the Under-21 Euros showcased a new generation of native talent, though it remains to be seen how many will actually get a look-in at Italy’s top table. Striker Lorenzo Insigne (left) will be hoping to increase his chances at Napoli (look out for his kid brothe Roberto as well); Mauro Icardi was in fine form for a so-so Sampdoria last season, and the young Argentine forward is set to shine for new club Inter. He’ll be joined upfront by 21-year-old Algerian Ishak Belfodil, who showed promise with Parma during the last campaign. Mattia Destro, at Roma, is another one to keep an eye on.
Rafa Benitez’s brief stint in charge of Inter was something of a let-down, but his rep remains relatively untarnished in Italy, and he arrived at Napoli in upbeat mood. “Call me Rafe,” the beaming Spaniard (right inset) told locals before deftly playing the man of the people card. “This is more than a club,” he announced, not altogether originally. The Neapolitans have responded in kind, naming an ice cream after him – a hazelnut flavour. Let’s just hope it doesn’t turn bitter after a few months. Rudi Garcia (left inset) takes over at Roma, promising a continuation of the hard-working, zippy playing style that won him the Ligue 1 title with Lille. The guitar-strumming Frenchman won’t find it easy (nothing ever is at Roma), but with a decent start he could bring some much-needed stability, if not immediate success. Vincenzo Montella’s encouraging progress at Fiorentina may see some reward: they were unfortunate not to qualify ahead of AC Milan for this season’s Champions League, finishing last year in fourth – which would have been enough two seasons previously.
They said what?!
Earlier this summer, during Benitez’s first press conference as Napoli coach, publicity-loving club president Aurelio De Laurentiis was asked a question about the future of striker Edinson Cavani. He rolled his eyes and broke into a brief rendition of an old Italian love song, Marina. Later he declared that, if Cavani was “a real man” he would stay in Naples. For many, the dream scenario now would be Napoli and PSG being paired against each other in the Champions League. Cue much sniping.
Presidents and owners
Bostonian hedge fund manager James Pallotta is becoming increasingly hands-on at Roma, overseeing a controversial rebranding, introducing new merchandising and marketing revenue streams, poring over plans for a new stadium and, perhaps most crucially, heading towards an inevitable showdown with the more troublesome corners of the Giallorossi’s support base. His recent outburst in a Financial Times interview, when he spoke of his “frustration” at slow progress on and off the pitch, could be a sign of things to come. Mustn’t forget old Silvio, of course, although it’s been his daughter Barbara Berlusconi, a Milan director, who’s been doing the most sabre-rattling of late, having a go at club vice-president Adriano Galliani over the future of coach Massimiliano Allegri.
Mario Balotelli’s current squeeze, Belgian model Fanny Neguesha, caused a stir after tweeting a photo showing off a dazzling diamond on her finger. Mario, in his own inimitable style, downplayed talk of wedding bells: “I’d like to know what dickhead it was who told all these lies. I’ll be the one who says when it is that I’m getting married.” Don’t hold your breath then, Fanny. Meanwhile, Juventus striker Alessandro Matri continues to get more press these days by dint of his ‘showgirl’ other half, the lovely Federica Nargi (left).
Balotelli’s maturity and focus on the pitch was a key factor in Milan’s push towards a Champions League spot during the second half of last season (he’s really started to hit his straps for Italy too). However, the spikier side of his personality does occasionally still hit the surface. A little ironically, Super Mario – he of the indoor fireworks and dart-throwing – really doesn’t suffer fools lightly. Elsewhere, should Pablo Osvaldo stay at Roma, we can expect a few more stroppy “no one loves me” door-slamming fits. Paul ‘the Octopus’ Pogba, whose see-ball-kick-ball approach to goalscoring has done much to endear him to supporters, could become increasingly frustrated, and just a tad ratty, as he looks to nail down a starting place in the Juve midfield.
Serie A hosts five city derbies of varying intensity this season, but it’s possibly the smallest, and newest, that will be the most keenly felt. Supporters of Hellas Verona have seethed while watching suburban upstarts Chievo move into their stadium, nick their colours and a large chunk of their support. With Hellas stumbling around in the second and third divisions, the two clubs haven’t met since 2002 (they only first met in 1994). Left-leaning Livorno fans should spice up visits to Berlusconi’s Milan and, of course, Lazio. There’s no Paolo Di Canio (in the blue corner) or Cristiano Lucarelli (red) for il derby politico, but events off the pitch could steal the headlines from what happens on it.
Look out for...
Against a backdrop of tax evasion scandals, racism, violence, bankruptcy and all the rest of it, glimpses of a brighter future still momentarily appear. None more so than the new Napoli cheerleaders, waving their pom-poms from their touchline as they usher in another calcio golden age.