Serie A season preview: Juve looks unstoppable with Ronaldo

Cristiano-Ronaldo

Juventus' Cristiano Ronaldo, right, controls the ball during a friendly match between the Juventus A and B teams. (Antonio Calanni/AP)

With a new Serie A season set to kick off this week, Sportsnet takes a look at the players, teams and stories to watch in Italy’s top division in 2018-19.

CAN JUVE MAKE IT 8 IN A ROW?

In case you hadn’t heard, Cristiano Ronaldo made the move from Real Madrid to Juventus over the summer in a Serie A transfer record worth USD $131 million. Ronaldo’s signing was meant to bolster the Bianconeri’s chances of winning the Champions League, but it also has the added benefit of helping Juve maintain its domestic dominance. The addition of the Portuguese star strengthens an already seemingly unbeatable Juve side that has won seven consecutive Serie A titles, and the league and Coppa Italia double in each of the past four years.

Ronaldo isn’t the only newcomer in Turin. German midfielder Emre Can arrived on a free transfer from Liverpool, and the Italian champions also welcomed back veteran defender Leonardo Bonucci, as part of a swap deal that sent talented defender Mattia Caldara to AC Milan. Other additions include goalkeeper Mattia Perin and Portuguese full-back/winger Joao Cancelo. Gone are striker Gonzalo Higuain (sent on loan to AC Milan) and legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who signed with Paris Saint-Germain after not having his contract renewed.

On paper, Juve has the best and deepest roster in Serie A, so they have to be considered the heavy favourite to win the scudetto. That being said, the Turin giants have clearly prioritized winning the Champions League, so that could leave the door slightly ajar for another club to slip through and end Juve’s run of consecutive Italian championships.

THE TRAILING PACK

Juve wasn’t the only Italian team that had a busy off-season. Both Milan clubs were productive in the transfer market, and made significant roster moves in hopes of strengthening their positions in Serie A.

AC Milan notably added Gonzalo Higuain, Mattia Caldara, defensive midfielder Tiémoué Bakayoko (on loan from Chelsea) and Croatian full-back Ivan Strinic. Inter Milan pulled off a major coup in landing Belgian international Radja Nainggolan, who has been one of the best midfielders in Serie A over the past several years with Roma. Croatian fullback Šime Vrsaljko arrived on loan from Atletico Madrid, Dutch defender Stefan de Vrij made the move from Lazio, and forward Keita Balde was secured on loan from Monaco. All of these additions should make Inter the leading contender to challenge Juve for the title.

Napoli pushed Juve in the title race to the very end last season before ultimately finishing second by a mere four points. Manager Maurizio Sarri is gone, having joined Chelsea. His replacement is the legendary Carlo Ancelotti, who will take charge of a talented Napoli side that includes Dries Mertens and Marek Hamsik.

Roma will try to build upon its impressive third-place showing from a season ago when it also reached the semifinals of the Champions League. Manager Eusebio Di Francesco will be looking for more from Turkish prospect Cengiz Ünder, who was one of the breakout stars in Serie A last season, as well as to newcomer Javier Pastore, formerly of PSG. Brazilian goalkeeper Alisson is gone after being sold to Liverpool, and has been replaced by Swedish stopper Robin Olsen. Frenchman Steven Nzonzi was signed from Sevilla to help solidify the midfield.

KEEP AN EYE ON

Ronaldo’s arrival in Turin meant Juventus had to shed some of its payroll and sell off players. Argentine striker Gonzalo Higuain was shipped to AC Milan as part of a $21 million loan deal – Milan has an option to buy Higuain at the end of the season for $42 million.

Higuain joined Juve two years ago from Napoli in what was then a Serie A record $99 million transfer fee. He ended up scoring 40 league goals during his short stay at Juve, and now the 30-year-old Argentine is off to rivals Milan, where he will serve as the main reference point of attack. If the Rossoneri are going to finish in the top four to qualify for the Champions League, Higuain will have to be at his very best.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH

There can only be one choice, right? After playing in England and Spain for two of the biggest clubs in the world in Manchester United and Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo will now test himself in Italy with Juventus, the undisputed kings of Serie A. It was a bit of a shocking move, as many pundits thought he would return to Manchester United. In the end, though, the lure of conquering a new nation proved to be too much for the Portuguese super star.

Even at age 33, Ronaldo is in great shape, and has plenty of gas left in the tank. Always known for his athleticism and work rate, he will no doubt receive special attention from Serie A defenders, who tend to be a bit more physical than what he experienced in the Premier League and La Liga. So, it’ll be interesting to see how he deals with the rough treatment, and whether he can continue his torrid scoring pace in a league that prides itself on the quality of its defending.

PROMOTED CLUBS

Serie A welcomes back three familiar faces this season in Parma, Empoli and Frosinone.

Based in the city of Florence, Empoli returns to the Italian top flight after spending only one season in the second division. The Tuscan club won the Serie B title in 2017-18 by an impressive 13 points, and former Roma coach Aurelio Andreazzoli has signed experienced defenders Luca Antonelli and Matias Silvestre. But he’s also lost forward Francesco Caputo, now at Brescia, who was the top scorer in Serie B last season with 27 goals.

Parma is back in Serie A following a three-year absence, winning promotion on the last day of last season. The northern club became embroiled in an attempted match-fixing case and was originally docked five points for the upcoming Serie A campaign, but that penalty was later reduced to a fine on appeal. Newcomers include Portugal defender Bruno Alves, Jonathan Biabiany, Federico Dimarco and Alessandro Bastoni, all formerly of Inter.

Based in the suburbs of Rome, Frosinone beat Palermo in a two-legged, promotion playoff to book its return to Serie A – its only previous campaign in the top flight came in 2015-16 when it finished 19th.

Crotone, Hellas Verona and Benevento were relegated to Serie B after finishing in the bottom three of the Serie A table during the 2017-18 campaign. Spal was the only promoted team not to go back down last season.

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