No Joy in Europe..But Lets Start The Campaign
The last of the great European leagues start its season in hours. Yes Serie A is back. But not all is hunky dory.
Once the greatest football league in the world, Serie A is now struggling to impose itself as a European powerhouse. But that doesn’t lessen the intrigues and excitement of Serie A. We, at Goalden Times, would be covering Serie A in some detail. Here, Debopam Roy present the last part of his preview of the league starting on 31st August.
Napoli, out of Champions League 2014-15 having lost convincingly by a margin of 4-2 over two legs, would join Torino, Fiorentina and Inter in Europa League. That is number three to seven as per last year’s league standing (sixth ranked Parma were disqualified). To prevent their coefficients from sliding further, these four clubs need to perform strongly in the Europa League. Last year, runway and record breaking scudetto winners Juventus could not cross the group stage hurdle in the Champions League and went to Europa League instead. They are once again in the main draw, accompanied by AS Roma as the only other Italian club. Even Portugal has three clubs – Porto, Benfica and Sporting in the Champions League. The league which boasted of tactically astute teams who just would not concede and had the grit to win in Europe is losing ground to other leagues and losing it fast.
It is however something we have to keep aside now as the new season finally gets underway with all 10 fixtures scheduled over the coming weekend. In today’s piece we preview the remaining 10 teams of Serie A.
The Rossoneri are a club lacking ambition and clear direction. Having disbanded the senators after the title winning season of 2010-11 and sold off the prized jewels like Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, AC Milan were expected to usher a new dawn with young players but that proved to be a false one and the club were forced to bring in old spent forces like Michael Essien. Filippo Inzaghi, a club legend has taken reins but one of his most prized assets – Mario Balotelli has been sold off. Free transfer of shot stopper Diego Lopez from Real Madrid and an injury free Stephan El Shaarawy are his two best “acquisitions”. But it would be a tall order for Pippo to take this Milan side anywhere near Europe. Milan would do well to finish in the top five.
Key Player: With the sale of Mario Balotelli, Stephan El Shaarawy is the only big attacking threat for Milan. He has overcome his injury problems but whether he alone can lift Milan to its position of pre-eminence remains a doubt.
Breakout Star: Having made his debut for Milan in Champions League at the age of 16 and thus becoming the youngest ever Milan player and third youngest overall to do so, Bryan Cristante has been earmarked for great things. With Riccardo Montolivo injured, it would be a great opportunity for the youngster to stake his claim as the new creative force in this Milan team.
Key Transfer In: With the sale of Mario Balotelli, there may be a new striker who will come in the next few days but, on current form, the most influential transfer is Diego Lopez. Coming on a free transfer, arguably the best goalkeeper of Real last season, Lopez would be first established keeper bought directly from abroad by Milan since Dida. He would provide much needed security for the Milan defense.
Napoli has come a long way in just over a decade of President Aurelio de Laurentiis’ reign. From bankruptcy and playing in Serie C, they are now clearly a permanent Italian entrant to the Champions League spots. They have not been able to crack the European formula yet but with the wise head of Rafa Benitez at helm, this is something that they may yet achieve. Benitez has got important reinforcements like Michu, Kalidou Koulibaly and Jonathan de Guzman to base his campaign and his team is balanced enough to mount a twofold challenge in Serie A and in Europa League. Departures of Federico Fernandez and Valon Behrami and possible sale of Blerim Dzemaili to Milan may force Rafa to alter his defensive formation.
Key Player: Gonzalo Higuain missed probably the best chance to create history for Argentina in the World Cup final against Germany. But he may yet atone himself if he can lead Napoli to glory. The fancy for South American saviors at Napoli has been eternal since the days of El Pibe. The likes of Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi have provided some succour but with both sold to PSG, it is Higuain who now bears the responsibility of seeing Napoli through the season.
Breakout Star: Jorginho, the 22 year old Oriundi, had an outstanding half-season with Verona last year. He scored 7 goals and provided 4 assists in 18 matches in the first half of the season earning him a January transfer to Napoli. And although he managed a assist in his first full appearance, that was his only notable contribution in 15 games for Napoli. His overall play, however, was still appreciated. A hardworking midfield shuttler, Jorginho could provide the ballast for Napoli’s season if they sell Blerim Dzemaili.
Key Transfer In: Michu is very much a Rafa Benitez type of player – unheralded yet effective, someone who provides much more to the unit rather than being just an individual. In two full seasons at Swansea City, he netted 38 times across competitions. Rafa can bank on him to score crucial goals at the most opportune moments.
Palermo returned to Serie A after one year in Serie B, where they became champions of Serie B with a record 86 points, beating the previous record of 85 by Juventus, Chievo and Sassuolo. Manager ‘Beppe Iachini presided over that campaign and the Rosanero scored the second highest number of goals while conceding the least. He has been retained this year for Serie A but with the trigger happy Maurizio Zamparini at helm (29 managers in 12 years), he might be the first casualty of the league. Palermo has taken in a few notable transfers with the likes of Costa Rican defender Giancarlo Gonzalez and a Serie A old head Luca Rigoni coming in to join a group of young upcoming South American starlets like Abel Hernandez, Ezequiel Munoz, and Paulo Dybala. They would have to cover for the departure of Kyle Lafferty, their second highest goal scorer last season in Serie B and only one of only three players to hit double digits. Given their history and form, Palermo won’t go down immediately and will probably end up in the mid-table logjam.
Key Player: Edgar Barreto is a combative midfielder who was one of the key protagonists in Paraguay’s qualification into World Cup 2010 knockout rounds at the cost of holders Italy who were in the same group. Now retired from international duty, the 30 year old is the bulwark around which Palermo’s campaign is based.
Breakout Star: Abel Hernandez has been touted as the next Edinson Cavani for quite some time. At 24, he has already done enough to attract attention of many top clubs but no concrete offer has arrived. This may be the season where he shines as bright as his former club mate, forcing a top club to bid big for him.
Key Transfer In: Giancarlo Gonzalez was one of the best defenders in Costa Rica’s quarter final run in FIFA 2014 WC. His play earned him a place in ESPN’s Best XI at group stage and finally in BBC’s team of the tournament. Coming from MLS, he would need to adapt to the more tactical environs of Serie A but his displays project him as a canny defender who can shut down defences marvelously.
Parma was one of the over-achievers of last season. Under Milan legend Roberto Donadoni and spearheaded by former Milan man Antonio Cassano, Parma amassed 58 points and finished sixth, earning a place in the Europa League. However, FIGC rejected the application of Parma for a UEFA license, because Parma had overdue tax debt; their place thus went to seventh-place Torino, which had a UEFA license. In the long run, this may benefit their current Serie A campaign as their team is not strong enough to compete successfully in two tough competitions. Parma has not spent any money in the transfers but have sold off one of their key midfielders – Marco Parolo (8 goals and 7 assists in Serie A – second highest in both category for Parma) to Lazio. Donadoni, who is managing Parma since 2012, thus has his task cut out if he has to maintain the high standards set last year.
Key Player: Antonio Cassano has done this before. After failing at Real Madrid he became a key figure at Sampdoria. 6 years later he repeated that feat. After failure at both Milan clubs, he came to Parma on a free transfer and became the centre of attraction again, pushing the Crociati to European places with a rich haul of 12 goals and 8 assists in Serie A.
Breakout Star: Ishak Belfodil has shown a lot of promise in earning contracts with two European powers like Lyon and Inter but has not had a truly remarkable season. The 22 year old striker is back at Parma from Inter and would like to do better than the 8 goals he scored for Parma in 2012-13 season.
Key Transfer In: With hardly any new transfers in, till date, Parma has only done loan deals and free transfers. Of them, the most impressive is freekick specialist Francesco Lodi. The man who shot to prominence in Serie A during his time at Catania, was once touted as a substitute for Pirlo, mainly for his set piece skills. The midfielder has 23 goals in Serie A and would like to score a few more as he comes in as a replacement for Marco Parolo.
Roma had an outstanding season last year and the 85 points amassed by them would have won them the Scudetto in most seasons. It was only the record breaking century of points from Juventus that denied them the honour. This year the club has strengthened the team even more. While Mehdi Benatia has left for Bayern Munich, there have been high profile inclusions of Davide Astori, Juan Manuel Iturbe, Konstantinos Manolas, Ashley Cole and Salih Ucan. La Giallorossi were also given a boost by the fact that Italian bank UniCredit sold its remaining (minority) stake to the American group of investors led by club president James Pallotta thus making them the first Italian football club to be wholly owned by foreigners. On the field, the club did well to beat Real Madrid in the friendly tournament and narrowly losing to Manchester United and to Inter on penalties. With champions Juventus going through a managerial uncertainty, Roma remains the prime favorites to win their fourth Scudetto.
Key Player: Kevin Strootman was one of the high profile transfers last season for Roma and he delivered on his promise, scoring 5 goals and providing 6 assists in Serie A. Injury curtailed his involvement to only 25 matches and scuppered his chance in the Dutch world cup team. But he promises to come back stronger this season as his injury worries look like receding.
Breakout Star: Mattia Destro has been earmarked as one of Italian frontmen with the most potential. He had scored 13 goals in only 20 Serie A appearances emerging as his club’s top scorer. However with injuries limiting appearances, he could not score enough to break into Cesare Prandelli’s world cup squad. He can show that he is a safe bet as a 20 goal a season striker and this may be the season to cement that claim.
Key Transfer In: Davide Astori is a Milan youth product who has broken through to the Italian national team from a small team like Cagliari. His loan move to Roma came through after some drama as a deal was almost in place for local rivals Lazio. Lazio dallied a bit and Walter Sabatini, Roma’s Director of Sport pounced for a deal. There is further intrigue to the move as Astori was involved in an on-field punch up with Mattia Destro in the Roma-Cagliari match last season which earned Destro a suspension. Now as clubmates, it is to be seen if sparks still fly. With the departure of Benatia, it is Astori that Roma will look towards to provide the necessary defensive steel.
It has been a few unimpressive seasons for the Blucerchiati with consecutive finishes at 12th and 14th in the two seasons that they have been back in Serie A after promotion from Serie B. Club legend Siniša Mihajlović has been in charge since last season but has not been able to inspire the club to its glory days. Sampdoria sold off Shkodran Mustafi, the only Sampdoria player who made an impression in World Cup, to Valencia but the transfers in have not been as impressive. Former Arsenal reserve keeper Emiliano Viviano, Fiorentina right back Lorenzo de Silvestri and promising Inter striker Alfred Duncan, Catania hitman Gonzalo Bergessio forms their chief intakes. At first glance this isn’t enough to break into the top half of Serie A and Mihajlović would do well to keep his team in the same mid-table spot.
Key Player: Angelo Palombo is one of those captains (Toto di Natale at Udinese is another) who has led with great inspirational power. Apart from a loan spell at Inter in 2012 when Sampdoria were relegated, he has spent over a decade with Blucerchiati. His defensive nous and leadership from the back has made sure that Sampdoria have been one of the competitive teams of Serie A except for that one season when they were relegated. At 32 he still has some years at the top level and Mihajlović will depend on his charismatic captain to anchor the midfield.
Breakout Star: Manolo Gabbiadini was covered in Goalden Times back in 2012 when we had identified him as one for the future. Since then he has progressed a lot. In 2012-13 he had 6 goals in Serie A playing with Bologna and 8 in 2013-14 for Sampdoria. At 22, he is now primed for a breakout season. For Sampdoria to get into the top half of the league, they would count on Gabbiadini to rovide the goals.
Key Transfer In: Emiliano Viviano was considered a potential successor to Buffon once. But failure at Fiorentina and failing to get a single competitive game under his belt over three spells at Inter and Arsenal has made him fall far back in the pecking order of national goalkeeping rosters. Sampdoria offers him one last chance and at 28 he is entering the best years of a goalkeeper’s career. So it may just come along together one more time for Viviano.
Sassuolo played their first ever Serie A campaign last season and managed to avoid the drop to Serie B immediately by finishing 17th. Having spent more time in the relegation zone than any other team except Catania, Sasuolo made a miraculous escape by the skin of their teeth as only 2 points separated them from the relegated Catania. They banked their survival on the young attacking pair of Domenico Berardi and Simone Zaza and that was enough to earn them the stay even though they conceded the second highest tally of goals. They have been active in the transfer market in order to prolong their Serie A adventure and acquisition of Genoa full back Šime Vrsaljko, Juventus defender Federico Peluso, Napoli’s Paolo Cannavaro shows that this time round their defence will be stronger. Indeed, they have a squad well balanced to finish mid table.
Key Player: Domenico Berardi & Simone Zaza are probably the unlikeliest pair of successful attacker pairs of last season. 20 year old Berardi scored 16 goals and provided 9 assists including a poker (4 goals) against Milan. He also grabbed a hat trick against Sampdoria in Sassuolo’s first away win in Serie A and another in the first half against Fiorentina in a 4-3 win. The 22 year old Zaza scored 9 goals over the season, making it 25 for the pair out of the 43 league goals scored by Sassuolo. Both had a breakout season together and their goalscoring feats need to continue for Sassuolo to remain in Serie A.
Breakout Star: Francesco Acerbi has had a breakout season already with Chievo. This had led to his transfer to Milan. However he was discarded within half a season and then came to Sassuolo in 2013 via Genoa and Chievo. And then he was detected with testicular cancer. He underwent surgery to get well and returned successfully to Serie A action before being found to have failed a doping test in December 2013. The player denied using doping, claiming that a positive result might be caused by medicine he had been taking after surgery. And then it was found that the tumour had returned and Acerbi had testicular cancer. Further layoff followed but his iron will has allowed him to make one more comeback. If any player deserves success, then it is him.
Key Transfer In: Šime Vrsaljko had a great world cup with Croatia and at 22 is poised for a successful career. Sassuolo paid a lot to buy him outright from Genoa, trying to plug their leaky defense.
Parma’s loss was Torino’s gain. Before the final round of matches last season, Torino were 6th and Parma 7th and then Torino, after a 84th minute equaliser to make it 2-2, missed a penalty in the 94th minute from Alessio Cerci, scorer of 13 goals in the league. That draw earned Torino a point but Parma’s win away to Livorno meant they pipped Torino by a point to finish 6th and qualify for the Europa League. However, with Parma disqualified due to not having UEFA license, Torino were reinstated as the final European spot qualifier from Italy. It was a just reward for a record breaking season in which a Torino player had been the capocannoniere for the first time since 1977-78. Ciro Immobile’s 22 goal season earned him a transfer to Dortmund to fill the void created by the departure of Robert Lewandoswki. Cerci may follow the path out too, with offers from multiple clubs. Torino’s transfer in has been the scorer of fantastic goals – Fabio Quagliarella. Loan deals for Antonio Nocerino from Milan and Ruben Perez from Atletico Madrid have beefed up the midfield. However, having to play in two tough competitions is surely going to take its toll. Torino would do well to finish in the top half again and may even be a candidate for relegation if Cerci is sold and not adequately replaced.
Key Player: Matteo Darmian had a wonderful World Cup debut as a right back for Italy against England. Later he also played on the left and as a wingback. He had an outstanding season with Torino. Another season like that and his parent club, Milan, might rue the day they allowed their one time youth team captain to move for free.
Breakout Star: Marco Benassi was part of the Inter Milan youth team that won the Primavera league and European title – NextGen Series in 2012. However, he was not able to break into the Inter and was sold to Torino on a co-ownership. He would like to show his parent club what he is capable of and Torino could afford him that space to prove himself.
Key Transfer In: Fabio Quagliarella is probably the scorer of some of the most fantastic goals in Serie A. Having become a peripheral figure at Juventus, he has moved to Torino and would have the tall order of filling the boots of Ciro Immobile who scored 22 goals last season.
Udinese remains one of those rare clubs who have successfully shown a model of operation different than many bigwigs at Serie A. The Pozzo family that owns Udinese also own Granada that plays in La Liga and Watford that plays in English Championship. Udinese have a wide range of scouts spread across the globe and scour for unknown talents. These players are then moved across the two sister clubs to give them exposure before moving them to Udinese where they get to play with the big boys. Even this year, there have been players like Allan, Molla Wague, Alexis Zapata who have come from Granada and others like Albert Riera, Davide Faraoni who have come from Watford. Along with new talents, Udinese have also given another chance to promising former Inter manager Andrea Stramaccioni. Strama had spent 14 months at Inter leading them to a dismal 9th spot before being sacked but Udinese trusts him to take the team forward after four years under Francesco Guidolin. Last season in Serie A Udinese’s performance was not so good because talisman and captain Antonio di Natale scored only 17 goals in the season after four straight seasons where he had scored 29, 28, 23 and 23 respectively. As he has postponed his retirement by a season, he might try to finish on a high leading Udinese back to European spots.
Key Player: Luis Muriel is the next in line of dynamic Udinese strikers – fast, skilful dribbler and deadly in the box. However so far he has not completely lived up to that potential. He had a stand-out 2012-13 when he scored 11 goals and earned the best young player in Serie A award but injuries and poor form curtailed him to only four goals last season. If Udinese are to look for life beyond di Natale, then Muriel would have to shoulder the extra burden and bang in those goals.
Breakout Star: Simone Scuffet was one of the dark horses to go to World Cup having shown exceptional promise in a late season display for Udinese. Such was the 18 year old’s potential that Atletico Madrid thought of him as a backup keeper. However he rejected the offer as he felt he could grow more at Udinese. Another season of promise beckons and this time there may be more such offers if he lives up to his potential.
Key Transfer In: Panagiotis Kone had a relatively fruitful two year spell at Bologna scoring 13 times playing from the wing. A move to Udinese should be considered a step up as Udinese typically allows winger-cum-strikers to flourish, a fact exemplified by players like Alexis Sanchez and Toto di Natale. Kone might be another player who follows in their footsteps given his raw pace and dribbling skills.
Verona surprised everyone by finishing 10th last season after coming from Serie B. It was a gigantic achievement given that their last appearance in Serie A was in 2002. Luca Toni turned back the years to scored 20 goals and also provided 11 assists, leading Verona to European contention till the final stages of the Serie A season. Then there was Juan Manuel Iturbe, signed on loan from Porto, who scored eight times besides providing five assists. Quite predictably, Roma came to pounce on Iturbe for almost 29 million Euros. Verona wants to have many such Iturbes every season. In that, they have signed Panagiotis Tachtsidis and Antonio Luna. Taking a cue from the success of 36 year old Toni, Verona have also brought the 35 year old Mexican captain, Rafael Marquez. But Iturbe was not the only departure. Midfield has been depleted as two young players – Jorginho and Romulo left for Napoli and Juventus respectively. It was a miracle as Tim Parks wrote of Verona’s scudetto year in 1985. Their performance last season was at a similar level of surprise. But miracles do not happen every year and Verona would do well to repeat such performance. Practically, it should be considered a success if Verona can avoid the drop.
Key Player: Luca Toniwas a late developer, bursting on to the scenes out of nowhere in his twenties. Till then he had not shown much promise at youth levels. Luca Toni was almost finished at 36. And then he signed for Verona and banged in 20 goals and 11 assists. Such was the impact that he was offered a two year extended contract. It is to be seen if he can replicate his last season’s form this season.
Breakout Star: Giorgi Chanturia has been bought from Romanian side CFR Cluj. He also has experience of playing with Barcelona’s B team scoring 11 goals in helping the Catalans win the Juvenil B championship. The Georgian was dubbed a wonderkid and scored on his senior debut in March this year for Georgia. Having sold off Iturbe to Roma, Verona would like Chanturia to take his role.
Key Transfer In: Rafael Marquez had almost wound up his playing career with spells in MLS Mexican Liga MX. However, a stupendous World Cup where he led the Mexican team to the knockout rounds at the expense of Cameroon and Croatia before being ousted by two late Dutch goals, has seen Marquez come back in focus and Verona has backed him to provide leadership from the back.