A New Beginning – The Serie A Preview
The new calcio season is upon us and if last season was termed as Season Zero (especially by Milan fans given the club broke through the stranglehold of city rivals Inter to capture Lo Scudetto after 7 seasons), when none of the 20 managers who started the season had won a Scudetto, then this season should aptly be called Season One. In more ways than one, this is a season of fresh beginnings, of first steps to redemption for the clubs and the league as a whole in the European prestige stakes.
The European Coefficient
The decline of Serie A has been often a debate hotly contested by the league’s followers by pointing out how the Milan clubs have maintained a steady stream of wins over the last few years. However after Bundesliga overtook Serie A in the European coefficients, the real blows have come. This will be the first season where, since the coefficients were introduced, Serie A will not send four, but three representatives to the Champions League. To the league, which boasts the maximum number of Champions League finalists – won it 12 times (only one less than La Liga), has the only city to provide 2 champions league winning clubs, this is a serious downgrade. Many theories have been put forward on how the league can regain its once lofty position. The simplest of it is to start performing as a group in both the European competitions and not just the Champions League. Historically, due to the unpredictability of the league, lots of teams overachieve to secure European slots in a league campaign but then lack the long term planning to build on that success the next season, especially in Europe. And this season was marked by Palermo and Roma crashing out of Europe even before the group stage draw. Napoli, back in Champions League for the first time in this millennium, were handed the proverbial group of death in Champions league with Bayern Munich, Villareal and Manchester City. Udinese, another overachiever of last season, couldn’t quite conquer Arsenal in the Champions League qualifiers despite dominating for large tracts and would be playing in Europa League. One can hope for good things from the 2 Milan sides in Champions League and a resurgent Lazio in Europa League. Both Palermo and Udinese were guilty of selling their main stars in their campaign in the summer and Roma are in such a flux, that it wasn’t completely a surprise they lost. For the sake of the league, one wishes that the more ambitious teams qualify for Europe next season.
The Player Strike
If the exits from Europe were humiliating, then it became messier with an ongoing dispute between the players association and the clubs forcing a player strike. The issue in the middle was collective bargaining of contract proposed by the Players’ Association (AIC) with 18 of the 20 Serie A clubs voting against. The heart of this dispute was Article 7, which forces clubs to allow all their players to train together, even those who won’t play due to contract disputes. Clubs insisted on forcing these players to train alone or forcibly agree to a transfer to another club in the last year of their contract. Recent examples abound in Serie A where even top players have fallen foul of club authorities – Antonio Cassano at Sampdoria, Federico Marchetti at Cagliari and a whole host of players at Lazio. Article 4 also became contentious. The clubs insisted that the solidarity tax paid to players who are getting out of contract must come only from other team members with no input from the clubs at all. The players for once have stuck to a genuine cause and the first weekend of Serie A was thus cancelled. Recent reports emanating out of meetings between Damiano Tommasi, President of AIC, and Maurizio Beretta, of the Football League, have reached an agreement and the league would start from its second week.
Calciopoli and Calcioscomesse
The strikes though were lesser sore points than two scandals – one old and one fresh which undermined Serie A further. Calciopoli (the 2006 findings which had found a host of clubs guilty of conversations with the referee coordinators and referees to influence matches) had changed the Serie A universe permanently by relegating Juventus and scrapping their scudetto wins of 2005 and 2006 and handing penalties to a host of other clubs. The only club that was considered ‘clean’ was Inter Milan and they were awarded the 2006 scudetto post facto. A five year old courtroom battle by the then Juventus Director of Sport, Lucioano Moggi, forced investigators to check certain tapes which were not considered in the original trial. Subsequent to this, it was found that Inter were equally guilty, if not more, of violating the norms in their conversations with the referee coordinators. Judge Stefano Palazzi’s 72-page report on Calciopoli II convicted Inter of sporting fraud. However with the limitations of the statutes to something that happened 5 years ago, Inter couldn’t be punished. Inter resisted calls to relinquish the 2006 scudetto and the bad blood spread with the juventini calling on the moral values of the late Giacinto Facchetti, who was the President of Inter during that period. It didn’t spare presidents like Diego Della Valle of Fiorentina and Inter President, Massimo Morratti entangling in a public war of words.
The Calcioscomesse was an equally demoralizing scandal where at the beginning of June, 16 people including former Lazio and Italy striker, Giuseppe Signori were arrested and charged with being members of a gang that systematically fixed Italian football matches. Some of those arrested, including former Bari captain Antonio Bellavista, went straight to prison, while others such as Signori were put under house arrest. The investigations concluded with Atalanta, newly promoted to Serie A, being hit by a 6 point penalty and their influential captain, Cristiano Doni getting banned for three-and-a-half years. Signori himself was served with a five year ban from calcio. The ban marked the end of playing career of the 38 year old Doni and plunged his club Atalanta into a crisis.
There is a different flavour to the summer mercato (literally – the market) in Italy this season. Champions Milan did their shopping early and for free and then ran a whodunit starring Mr X. All top European midfielders were auditioned as Mr. X but finally Alberto Aquilani was found as the midfield replacement to the metronome Andrea Pirlo, who had chosen to transfer allegiance to Juventus for free after more than a decade in Rossoneri colours. But Pirlo was only one cog for The Old Lady who did a complete makeover with at least 20 new players brought in and departures for many of the regulars like Felipe Melo. Roma underwent their own revolution with the director of sport Walter Sabatini bringing a manager “untainted” by Serie A experience in Luis Enrique from the Barcelona B side. The whispers of Roma trying to follow the “Barcelona way” were reinforced by the loan of Bojan to Roma. Lazio had an impressive mercato signing Miroslav Klose for free and a host of above average signings like Lorik Cana and a gamble in Djibril Cisse. Napoli showed their owner’s filmy origins by unveiling €16m signing Gökhan Inler in a lion mask on a yacht. Inter had a largely stagnant mercato and then suddenly Samuel Eto’o was sold to Anzhi Makhachkala for €30m in a move that made Eto’o the highest paid athlete in the world ($32m before tax per year) and this move triggered a series of moves that brought Diego Forlan, Andrea Poli, Mauro Zarate and a host of others to the club. Genoa did their usual revamping of entire squad at every transfer season by buying a whole host of players including giant defender Andreas Granqvist, goalkeeper Sebastian Frey and equally selling another bunch including last season buys -Eduardo, Rafinha and Azzurri defender Domenico Criscito. Among the rest of the clubs, Cesena provided one last chance for Adrian Mutu to show his worth, while Catania brought in David Suazo.
There were extremely high profile departures from the league with Eto’o, Javier Pastore (to the new money of PSG) and Alexis Sanchez to Barcelona being the top three. But there was influx of exciting talent in the form of Ricky Alvarez of Inter from Velez Sarsfield, Erik Lamela & Jose Angel to Roma from River Plate & Sporting Gijon respectively; Fiorentina brought promising Brazilian full back Romulo, Juventus bought Arturo Vidal, Copa America sensation Marcelo Estigarribia and dutch winger Elijero Elia. There were returns of many prodigal sons to Serie A, with Aquilani, the chief among them but also joined by Fabio Borini to Roma via Parma from Chelsea, Simon Kjaer & Pablo Osvaldo to Roma from Wolfsburg & Espanyol respectively. So far in the transfer season, Serie A clubs have spent €472,331,000 and earned revenue of €411,790,000 for a net loss of about €60,541,000. This puts Serie A second overall among the European leagues in terms of expenditure and top in terms of revenue earned.
All figures courtesy www.transfermarkt.co.uk
These figures show clearly that the Serie A clubs sold very high and bought relatively high. Compared to other leagues, and with an impending European Fair Play policy, the Serie A clubs did not splurge mindlessly but have spread their buys with cheaper alternatives to balance out.
Can He Keep Winning Leagues?
Atalanta got promoted as winners of Serie B but the Calcioscomesse has already dented their chances of survival. Without their influential captain Christiano Doni, who in over a decade of services to Atalanta has scored more than 100 goals, it will be tough for manager Pierpaolo Marino to inspire the team to overcome their six-point penalty. A flurry of deadline deals which brought in important midfielders Luca Cigarini, Matteo Brighi and strikers Maxi Moralez and German Denis have given some hope of survival.
Target: Fight bravely against relegation
Prediction: Dangerously flirt with relegation; Might just survive.
Bologna stayed up on a stellar one man show by Captain Marco di Vaio who scored 19 of Bologna 35 league goals. Repeating the same for the 35 year old forward would be asking too much but reinforcements include Robert Acquafresca and Alessandro Diamanti. After comically losing Azzurri keeper Emiliano Vivano to an administrative error, despite bidding higher in a blind auction with Inter, Bologna have done well to recruit Belgian Jean-Francois Gillet as the shot stopper.
Target: Upper mid table finish
Prediction: Should finish mid table
Cagliari has been severely depleted in the transfer season. Key personnel including Federico Marchetti, Andrea Lazzari, Robert Acquafresca has left with no significant reinforcements. The manager Roberto Donadoni was sacked before the season even started, by owner Massimo Cellino over the non-transfer of David Suazo. New man Massimo Ficcadenti took Cesena to safety last season but this may be one challenge he wouldn’t pass.
Target: Mid table finish
Catania are the Argentine B team of Serie A as they can parade a first XI of Argentinians. Vincenzo Montella, who might have considered his sacking at Roma harsh, is at charge and has an interesting team. A strike force of Maxi Lopez and David Suazo might be potent. There are promising signings in Davide Lanzafame and Pablo Barrientos. If Montella is allowed to run his ideas freely, this team can surprise a few.
Target: Mid table
Prediction: Upper mid table finish.
Cesena returned to Serie A after 19 years last season and surprised many when after 2 victories in the opening 2 rounds (including at home over eventual champions Milan) had propelled them to top of Serie A. Eventually they managed to survive and have added some experienced hands this year. But the pick of the transfers have been Adrian Mutu on a free transfer and he might lead Cesena to safety once again.
Target: Avoid relegation easily.
Prediction: Will fight bravely against relegation and avoid it.
The miracle of the flying donkeys continues and has made interesting acquisitions like Michael Bradley, Alberto Paloschi (on loan) and the 18 year old Francesco Grandolfo who scored a hat-trick on his Serie A debut for Bari which should see them through safety for another season.
Target: Mid table security
Prediction: Would avoid relegation
The Viola were disappointing last season but welcome back Steven Jovetic from a season long injury. Leading men Alberto Gilardino and Juan Manuel Vargas are joined by Mattia Cassani from Palermo. But captain Riccardo Montolivo has declared he wouldn’t extend his contract expiring in 2012 and owners Dalla Valle brothers are more intent on picking fights.
Target: European spot
Owner Enrico Preziosi runs the proverbial supermarket and every transfer campaign completely changes the look of the team. They buy many and they sell many. Manager Alberto Malesani has a Coppa Italia, a UEFA Cup, an Italian Super Cup and two fourth placed finishes a decade ago with Parma.
Target: Finish in European positions
Prediction: Genoa will surprise a few teams and grab a top 7 finish.
Inter were rudely jolted when in the middle of June, Leonardo, who had only arrived after severing a 13 year old relation with cross town rivals Milan, in December 2010, suddenly left to be a director at PSG. Despite searching far and wide, Moratti could not get any of his preferred managers (Andre Vilas-Boas, Marcelo Bielsa, Carlo Ancelotti et al) and settled for Gian Piero Gasperini who played entertaining calcio at Genoa but is marked for his penchant for the 3-4-3 formation. Inter have focused on buying young and they have a promising squad but this is not the squad that won the treble 1 year back. Question marks remain on the utilization of Sneijder in a 3-4-3 formation and there is a Eto’o sized hole in the attack and there are usual doubts about how a 3 man backline will fare against top class opposition. Joel Chukwuma Obi, Ricky Alvarez, Luc Castaignos are some exciting talents but whether they will miss that cutting edge in the final third will determine how their season progress.
Target: Scudetto; Progress far into the Champions League
Prediction: A finish outside top 3 (champions league spots) in Serie A; A 1st knockout round exit at best in Champions league; Gasperini to not last the season.
The new makeover at Juventus have brought in a lot of quality players, however, Antonio Conte is untested in Serie A. His pedigree in coaching consists of leading 2 clubs to promotion from Serie B. His penchant for playing a 4-2-4 might leave the club weak in the middle especially as Andrea Pirlo is one of the confirmed starters. Vidal’s versatility and strengthening of side backs, a weakness in recent times would be assets. However with virtually a new team and a new manager, coordination may be difficult. But if Conte can imbibe his team with the famous grinta of his playing days, Juventus can win their first Scudetto in almost a decade. Absence of continental play and a balanced start of games will only help in mounting the Scudetto challenge.
Target: Scudetto, given the expensively assembled team (€ 86m)
Prediction: Fancy their chances of a Scudetto given the quality of reinforcements and no burden of European games; will be in top two.
Lazio made a spirited run last season, and only hiccup in May forced them out of the Champions League spots. Edy Reja is an astute manager and would like to build on the progress the team made last year, driven as it was by a great debut season from Brazilian Hernanes. Club owner Claudio Lotito has added some interesting attacking firepower in Miroslav Klose and Djibril Cisse. This team remains underrated despite their 5th position of last year and this year might improve on their showing of last year.
Target: Match the result of last year and try to better it.
Prediction: Would do well to improve their last league position but should finish nearby. May have an extended run in Europa League
Much like another small club, Chievo, Lecce too will have to scrap hard to avoid the drop and deadline day arrivals of Massimo Oddo of Milan and highly rated youngsters Manuel Giandonato and Cristian Pasquato of Juventus are welcome additions.
Target: Fight bravely against relegation
Prediction: Dangerously flirt with relegation; Might just survive.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has not lost a league title since he won his first with Ajax in 2004. His run of 7 consecutive league titles span 4 clubs in 3 leagues. Milan based its 18th Scudetto on an imperious defensive display and further strengthened it with acquisitions of Taye Taiwo and Philippe Mexes. The midfield though is aging, injury prone and has a Pirlo shaped hole. The attacking line is creative and incisive but there will be various absences in the midfield (Mathieu Flamini is out injured till 2012 February and Kevin Boateng and Taiwo will leave on African Nations Cup next year). Coupled with that they have got potentially the hardest draw where in the first 9 rounds, will have to cope with Lazio, Napoli (away), Udinese, Juventus (away), Palermo, Roma (away). Add the Champions League ties including an away tie to Nou Camp, and unless the holders start all guns blazing, they might be off the title race very soon.
Target: Retain Scudetto, Go far in the Champions League
Prediction: Favorites for Scudetto, will be in top two in Serie A; Reach at least quarter finals of Champions League
Napoli had an almost fairytale season and came within 1 win away from going top of the league but were beaten by a resurgent Milan and later overtaken by Inter. Commendably Napoli have shown foresight and ambition in their transfer market and bolstered their team instead of selling their assets. Edinson Cavani returns from his annus mirabilis and would have Goran Pandev in addition to Ezequiel Lavezzi in the forward line. Manager Walter Mazzarri has been at Napoli since 2009 and with important additions like Inler, can match their 3rd position of last year.
Target: Dream of matching Diego’s Scudetto exploits but would accept a top 3 position.
Prediction: Should be able to match their position of 3rd and may improve if they get ousted from Champions League early and concentrate on Serie A. Would be an upset if they qualify from the Champions League group of death.
Novara gained promotion after a 2-legged playoff against Padova and has managed to have a stint in Serie A in their centenary year of creation. Their 55 year absence from Serie A also included a stay out of Serie B even for 33 years and only managed to break into Serie B in 2009. Considering this, their rise is remarkable and they have made some wise signings which might help them to continue their Serie A adventure.
Target: Fight bravely against relegation
Prediction: …and they would fight bravely and avoid relegation
This is as much about the ‘madness’ of Maurizio Zamparini as about a deflating transfer season, or maybe both are related. Palermo have sold off virtually the entire backbone of their team that reached the Coppa Italia finals and thus qualified for Europe, not retained their manager and sacked his replacement before the season kicked off. Without Pastore, Azzurri keeper Salvatore Sirigu, and Azzurri defender Mattia Cassani, Palermo would depend entirely on the magic of Slovenian playmaker Josip Ilicic and forward Abel Hernandez.
Target: Top half finish.
Prediction: Flirt with relegation; At least 3 manager sackings.
Gone are the days when Parma was one of the leading lights of Serie A. Now the Ducali are happy to avoid relegation. Major transfer story was buying out Sebastian Giovinco from Juventus. He has been joined by Fabiano Santacroce and Blerim Dzemaili as reliable recruits.
Target: Mid table safety
Prediction: Achieve their target after a few hiccups.
Roma have undergone the most change including a new owner in American entrepreneur, Thomas di Benedetto. The first thing that di Benedetto did was recruit Walter Sabatini as the director of Sports. Noted for his keen eye for talent, Sabatini has put together a bright young squad with talents from all over the globe. Deadline day recruitments of Fernando Gago, Simon Kjaer and Miralem Pjanic were especially commendable. The doubts though linger if the Romanisti will have faith in a manager whose only managerial experience was at La Masia and with Barcelona B. Il Capitano Francesco Totti still calls the shots and Luis Enrique will have to manage the egos carefully. Captain in waiting, Daniele de Rossi has yet to sign a contract extension and if not rectified would be available for free in January.
Target: Return to Champions league places
Prediction: Totti to have a major fall out with Enrique. Roma will finish outside top 3.
Siena gained promotion as runner up in Serie B and have managed to sign Gaetano D’Agostino as a marquee signing. But they lack the firepower upfront and unless Emanuele Calaiò matches his Serie B performance (18 goals in 39 Serie B matches), Siena could go straight down.
Target: Bravely fight against relegation
Udinese were the special team and was often referred to as the Barcelona of Italy due to their dynamic pacy play. They have however sold off 3 of their biggest assets – Sanchez, Christian Zapata and Gokhan Inler (to direct rivals Napoli). Like always they have recruited a lot of youngsters who might prove to be a bargain buy. Pablo Armero of Colombia already looks like he could have a breakthrough season. Udinese dominated both legs against Arsenal only to pay the price for not converting chances. The team remains vibrant and Captain Antonio di Natale has scored nearly 60 Serie A goals in last 2 seasons.
Target: Finish in European positions by matching last season’s performance.
Prediction: Udinese would entertain in plenty but would finish outside the European slots; will progress beyond group stages in Europa League.
The Serie A season is coming 2 weeks into September and for the fans of the league, it cannot come soon enough. May the best team win and may there be no further boycotts in the season.
Debopam Roy follows football in Italy and South America. You can reach him on twitter @rossoneri