Serie A preview: Juventus’ title to lose

August 23, 2012, 12:50 PM

Normally the sight of a man wearing nothing more than his underwear in public is reason for concern.

Surely the authorities should have taken this miscreant into custody for lewd behaviour, or at least instruct him to put his clothes back on. However, security and police just sat back and watched the entire spectacle unfold as fans ran onto the field and stripped Juventus captain Giorgio Chiellini in joyous celebration after clinching the scudetto with one match to spare.

A week later, Juventus Stadium was filled to capacity and ready to celebrate the club’s 28th domestic championship — though, by the club’s count it was number 30, failing to recognize the two titles that were stripped from them by the Italian Football Federation following the Calciopoli scandal in 2006. Arguments aside, Juventus topped the table last season with an undefeated record, winning 23 of 38 matches. It was a monumental achievement.

It what was supposed to be a summer of relaxing reflection on a successful season, but manager Antonio Conte was given a ten-month ban for his failure to report reported match-fixing while coaching Siena. The suspension allows Conte to train and prepare his side, but restricts his presence on match days.

The champions have backed their manager’s appeal on the ruling, though, should the ban stick, Juventus is even left without second in command Angelo Alessio, also implicated and suspended for eight months. Instead of gearing up with confidence, the club is stuck in limbo.

Now for the good news. Juventus strengthened its squad considerably over the summer, adding Lucio from Inter Milan and two of Udinese’s best midfielders from last season, Kwadwo Asamoah and Mauricio Isla. All three compliment the defensive mindset that made the Bianconeri best in show, conceding only 20 goals. Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo are ageless wonders, with Claudio Marchisio and the returning Sebastian Giovinco providing the team with an offensive spark.

The biggest gamble came in their signing of Manchester United academy prodigy Paul Pogba. The midfielder has made only seven first team appearances, all coming off the bench. Sir Alex Ferguson’s reluctance to see him leave Old Trafford could be a good sign at his potential.

With all of this in mind, Juventus should be considered favourites to defend their crown.

Milan clubs hot on Juve’s trail

AC Milan will certainly feel the effects of a starting eleven minus Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, both sold to Paris Saint-Germain for a paltry 62 million euros. The Rossoneri will struggle to recoup the big Swede’s 28 goal output from last year which won him the golden boot, and Silva’s influence on the back four, made worse by the departure of veterans Alessandro Nesta and Gianluca Zambrotta.

The mass exodus continued with Gennaro Gatuso, Antonio Cassano, Filippo Inzaghi and Mark van Bommel, the latter having more of an impact in recent seasons. Clarence Seedorf is also gone, ending a decade at San Siro, but the addition of Riccardo Montolivo in the midfield cushions the blow to some degree.

If Alexandre Pato can stay healthy, he might duplicate Ibrahimovic’s accomplishments. The Brazilian has been plagued by injuries of late, missing almost half of the last three seasons in Serie A and scoring 27 goals; a decent output considering all of his setbacks. The emergence of Kevin-Prince Boateng in Italy has caught many by surprise, and the rapid rise of Stephan El Shaarawy sheds light in times of gloom. Under the circumstances, a step backward may be the unfortunate reality for manager Massimiliano Allegri.

Over at Inter Milan, the mood has turned positive following a below-par season that saw the Nerazzurri drop out of the top four and barely qualify for a Europa League place. Andrea Stramaccioni became the fifth manager in two years, replacing Claudio Ranieri for the final nine games of the season. The former youth team coach took charge and guided the side to a respectable record, losing only twice and more importantly winning the Derby della Madonnina against AC Milan. Owner and president Massimo Moratti finally made the right move by installing a young vibrant manager with an eye to the future instead of throwing millions at a big name.

Only Diego Milito hit double digits on the scoring chart last season, ending with 24 goals. The remaining striking options fell embarrassingly short, starting with Diego Forlan. His arrival last summer was completed without the knowledge that the Uruguayan was cup-tied and unable to represent Inter in Europe, a shameful oversight. His output coupled with Giampaolo Pazzini and Mauro Zarate’s production totalled nine league goals all year. The list of disappointment continued, as Wesley Sneijder had an off year and goalkeeper Julio Cesar was the biggest disaster of all, looking incredibly overweight and averaging to concede once for every two saves made.

Plenty of weeds were pulled out and discarded over the summer, allowing some of the roses to bloom and opening up space to replenish the ranks. Goalkeeper Samir Handanovic’s presence between the posts is a major upgrade, bought from Udinese for 15 million euros. Matias Silvestre was acquired on loan from Palermo to shore up a woeful backline that leaked more goals than any team outside of the bottom five. The added space also gives Andrea Ranocchia the opportunity to become a first team regular. Former Napoli star Walter Gargano was another smart pickup.

Rodrigo Palacio and Antonio Cassano, the later coming in a swap with AC Milan for Pazzini, should help to bolster the attack. Big things are expected from Ricardo Alvarez and Fredy Guarin, as both will witness an increase in responsibility. The gap has been narrowed and Inter can once again be considered title chasers.

Lazio could contend

The next tier of clubs will battle for the remaining European places, with Lazio headlining the pack. The Biancocelesti made some smart buys during the off-season — nothing major, but enough to solidify a core that overachieved last season. Antonio Candreva and Ederson have made the journey to Rome, joining the trio of Stefano Mauri, Cristian Ledesma and star midfielder Hernanes. It gives Lazio plenty of creativity to choose from and lots of service for strikers Miroslav Klose and Tommaso Rocchi to exploit. If the returning Mauro Zarate can rediscover his top form, Lazio might pull away even further from the trailing pack.

A new season brings with it another regime change for AS Roma following the sacking of Luis Enrique, with the Giallorossi only managing a seventh place finish, two points short of qualifying for the Europa League. Czech Zdenek Zeman was hired to get the Romanistas to the next level. But absences may prove to be a stumbling block, with the departures of Fabio Borini, Fernando Gago, Gabriel Heinze and Simon Kjaer most problematic — although the impressive performances put forth by Erik Lamela, Miralem Pjanic and Bojan Krkic is reason enough to be hopeful of a new dawn ahead. Daniele De Rossi has stayed put after talk of a sale to Manchester City, and iconic leader Francesco Totti will kick-off his 20th season in the Italian capital. Roma are a few pieces shy of the top four, but top six is a reasonable ambition.

Napoli might have missed out on the Champions League place, finishing in fifth spot and three points shy of consecutive qualification in Europe’s top competition. However, manager Walter Mazzarri did conjure up some silverware for outspoken club president Aurelio De Laurentiis on the final day of the Italian football calendar by lifting the Coppa Italia. It was the Neapolitans’ first trophy in 22 years.

But optimism for the coming season took a blow with the 30 million euro sale of forward Ezequiel Lavezzi to PSG. The club hopes new Chilean signing Eduardo Vargas can fill the void, and it kept hold of Marek Hamsik, Christian Maggio and Edinson Cavani, making a top six result the benchmark. As Cavani’s star rises, his chance of remaining in Naples shrinks and a sale becomes the unfortunate reality.

Finishing at the bottom-half of the table last season, Fiorentina has reason to be hopeful of a drastic turnaround in fortunes, starting on the bench with the hiring of Vincenzo Montella. The Tuscan club will benefit a great deal with his arrival, as Catania did last year. Alberto Aquilani was brought in to balance the midfield after the sale of Riccardo Montolivo, with Borja Valero and David Pizarro also added. Stevan Jovetic is the focal point in attack and if he isn’t sold, la Viola should make a healthy challenge for a spot in Europe and improve their position in the standings

Another year brings with it an exodus of players that played an important role in the success of Udinese last season. Samir Handanovic, Kwadwo Asamoah and Mauricio Isla are gone, taking with them what used to be a position of strength for the Zebrette. But similar to past seasons, the club makes its reputation on building from within and unearthing future talent, taking unknowns and making them household names. Luis Muriel is one of those players, hoping to take the immense pressure off captain Antonio Di Natale to score goals. The appearance of Dusan Basta, Maurizio Domizzi and Giampiero Pinzi on the squad list is a good sign, however, the club won’t be able to emulate past results and should be content with a position in the top ten.

The next group lacks enough quality to be considered a serious threat, settling towards the top end of ninth and 14th spot in the table. Genoa survived relegation by six points and should improve on last year’s shortcomings, and improving on a horrible away record is a good starting point. Striker Alberto Gilardino is the only player worthy of mentioning on a mediocre roster.

The rest of the pack

Palermo only finished a point above Genoa last season, with their merry-go-round of managerial changes having a huge impact in the squad’s form, thanks to eccentric owner Maurizio Zamparini. The sale of keeper Emiliano Viviano to Fiorentina is a major loss, and at 33 years of age captain Fabrizio Miccoli is carrying the bulk of the responsibility along with Abel Hernandez. Something has to give eventually, but relegation is not in the cards. Parma will miss the goals and explosiveness that Sebastian Giovinco provided, and have bought Greek international Sotiris Ninis as a direct replacement. Manager Roberto Donadoni overachieved by guiding the club to eighth spot last season, and a similar standing at season’s end is overly ambitious.

Moving lower down the table, Catania should suffer an identical stumble and finish just above the drop zone. The magic performed by Vincenzo Montella last year will not be duplicated by new manager Rolando Moran. The same fate awaits Chievo, as aside from captain Sergio Pellissier who led the team in goals and assists last term, the squad is relatively thin and should see them nestle near the bottom.

Out of the three promoted clubs, Sampdoria should manage to stay afloat and avoid another humiliating relegation. The Blucerchiati have secured three vital loan deals that should go a long way into avoiding the bottom three, bringing Maxi Lopez, Marcelo Estigarribia and Lorenzo De Silvestri to the Stadio Luigi Ferraris.

The battle for survival will involve the six remaining clubs. Atalanta and Bologna are better suited to keep their status, followed by Cagliari, thus leaving Siena, Torino and Pescara as the favourites to take the dreaded plunge into Serie B.

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