UEFA Europa League Preview

The Europa League is ready to take off for the 2012-13 season and promises to be more competitive than ever. Riddhi Ray Chaudhuri previews where the teams stand at the beginning of the tournament and how they are going to perform

The second tier tournament of European club football is ready to kick-off the 2012-13 season. Although this tournament is no match to the UEFA Champions League, the Europa League brings a much wider spectrum of clubs on display from across Europe. For the so-called less-fancied clubs, this tournament is a stepping stone towards a bigger glory while for the more popular clubs, this is a poor man’s European tournament. Interestingly, this season will see a higher number of high profile clubs, who are generally more accustomed to playing in UCL, to compete like Internazionale, Lyon, Marseille, Liverpool, etc. A total of 48 clubs will be participating in group stage that have been divided in 12 groups with top two teams from each group qualifying for the next round, they will be joined by eight more teams from UCL group stage. Let’s take a look at the groups and the corresponding teams to preview how things may shape up after six match-days.

 

GROUP A

   Liverpool            FC Anzhi Makhachkala            FC Udinese Calcio          BSC Young Boys

None of the four teams are likely to be very happy with the group they are in. Although Young Boys and Anzhi are comparatively in much better positions in their respective domestic leagues, they know that they have their task cut out against their more illustrious opponents. In recent times, Anzhi have been in the news more because of their spending spree rather than their on-field actions. Getting Guus Hiddink on board has been a major appointment by Anzhi and it goes without saying that a club under the stewardship of Hiddink can never be taken lightly. Young Boys, coached by former Swiss footballer Martin Rueda, will be a very competitive side especially at home backed by their home support. On paper they may lack the names to excite but at the same time, they have nothing to lose and can easily cause one or two surprises. Although the European pedigree of Liverpool cannot be matched by rest of the three teams, in the last few years the performance of the club has gone backwards. It has been compounded by the poor start to the new season (worst in 50 years). With Brendon Rodgers being appointed as the new manager, normally it will take time for Liverpool to hit any sort of form. So with trips away to potentially difficult oppositions, Liverpool have to ensure their home form is up to the mark to ensure smooth passage from the group. A crushing defeat by Juventus has left Udinese coach Francesco Guidolin with a lot to be desired. In last couple of years, Udinese has performed at consistent level irrespective of their limited resources with repeated appearances in Europe. With a hard pressing and counter-attack based side, they will be one of the initial favourites to progress from this group.

GROUP B

Atletico           Viktoria Plzeň             Academica           H.Tel Aviv

Last season’s Europa League champions, Atletico find them clubbed with relatively easier opponents. Atletico have been off to a flier this season, their Europa Super Cup victory over Chelsea has been no less than a stunner. Under club legend Diego Simeone, they have developed as quite a fascinating side. They are lethal in attack and very formidable in other parts of the pitch; it goes without saying that they will be the outright favourites to win Group B. It will be interesting to see who go through the group stage along with Atletico. Academica from Portugal will be participating in Europe for the first time since 1971, courtesy their Portuguese Cup victory. It remains to be seen whether they will be mere pushovers or have something exciting to offer. Hapoel from Israel’s Tel Aviv are a team that have seen a lot of changes both on and off the pitch in recent times. Under new manager Nitzan Shirazi, they are a side in transition. If Hapoel can match their 2009-10 season’s performance in Europa League when they qualified from the group, they will be content with that. Viktoria Plzeň will be the side that will have better chances to go through to the round of 32 along with Atletico. Pavel Vrba has been in charge of the team for the last four seasons and it has helped the Plzeň based club to have a settled team. In 2011-12 they finished third in the group stage of Champions League and qualified for the knock-out round of Europa League – their best performance in Europe so far. This time they will be hoping to build on that and go further in the Europa League.

GROUP C

Olympique de Marseille          Fenerbahçe           AEL Limassol         Borussia Mönchengladbach FC

Group C will be a very hard one to predict. All the four teams have a competitive squad that can give a run for their money to any other team and against each other they have to dig deep in order to proceed to the next round. Marseille and Fenerbahçe are seasoned campaigners in Europe, they generally shuttle between UCL and Europa League every season. After their debacle in domestic league last season, Marseille have just flown off the block this season winning all of their first four matches. They have been solid in those matches in every department and with a squad that is playing together for quite a long time, they will be confident of their chances in the group. Fenerbahçe too have had a good start in the Turkish Süper Lig. They must have felt hard done by their failure to qualify for UCL group stage and Europa League will be their chance to redeem. The team have strengthened over the summer with addition of experienced players. They too would be raring to go. AEL, the Cypriot club have been living a dream since last season. Under Pambos Christodoulou (nicknamed Pambourinho for his managerial resemblance to Mourinho), they won the domestic league last season after 44 years and were very close to qualifying for the group stage of UCL. It will be interesting to see whether they can replicate what APOEL did last season. Although resources are a constraint for them, they can overcome that with their exuberance. Borussia Mönchengladbach has been the underdog team who caught imaginations last season in Bundesliga. They will be hoping to continue that form and build on it. Like the rest of the teams in the group, they too were ousted in the UCL play-off round and will have to be content with Europa League. Although there have been some chop and changes in the team, the backbone remains the same. Their manager, Lucien Favre will try to prepare his team to see off challenges from the rest of the contenders and make it to the next round.

GROUP D

Bordeaux             Newcastle United               Club Brugge              Maritimo

Apparently Group D appears to be a straightforward one. Belgium club Brugge and Maritimo from Portugal haven’t been able to make their marks in European stage in spite of being regular qualifiers from their respective countries in recent years. Brugge have started their season reasonably well but at the same time, Belgian league and Europe are different ball games. Emulating last season’s performance, when they qualified from group stage, will be their primary target. After repeated attempts in qualifying and play-off stage, Maritimo has moved on to group stage this season for the first time in their history. However, achieving something spectacular seems a bit away from their reach currently. Newcastle United’s resurgence under Alan Perdew has been quite exceptional in the last season. Intelligent signings and making the team play according to its strength has led the tyneside club back to European folds. With a very balanced squad, they will be eager to get back to their glory days. However, balancing both European and domestic front will be a challenge for them. Bordeaux have fallen from grace after departure of Laurent Blanc under whom they have been quite spectacular. At the same time, they lost quite a few star players in the process, which have left them severely depleted. Under Eric Bédouet, they are trying to find their feet. A good run in Europe can be the shot in the arm for them although that will require a Herculean effort from the team. Along with Newcastle, Bordeaux seems to be the safe bet to go to next round at this moment.

GROUP E

VFB Stuttgart          FC København             Steaua București               Molde FK

Group E has Molde, Stuttgart, Steaua from Bucharest and FC København pitched against each other. Four mediocre teams will have to slog it out between themselves to decide who will go through to the next round. Former Manchester United favourite, Ole Solskjær with his Midas touch has guided Molde to their first ever domestic title in their centenary year. However, they haven’t been able to make most of their opportunities in UCL and now they will try their luck in Europa League. Whether Solskjær can script another fairy tale with his team remains to be seen. Courtesy of their sixth place finish in Bundesliga, Stuttgart qualified for Europa league this season. However, expecting anything spectacular from them would be a tough ask. A bad start in their domestic league has compounded their problems and a crushing defeat by Bayern Munich has left them in disarray. Coping with the demands of Europa League will be a big test for them. FC København have enjoyed quite a good amount of success in recent years. They would want to follow that up with another good run this season. Under new coach, they have started well in the Danish league and will be the team to watch out for in this group. Steaua are familiar with Europa league group stage, having been a regular participant for the last few seasons. So they will try to use all their experience to get over other teams. Backed by their strong start in domestic Liga I, they will be hoping to get over to the next round.

GROUP F

AIK Solna                       FC Dnipro               PSV Eindhoven             Napoli

Group F will see two clear favourites, PSV and Napoli, facing the underdog sides AIK Solna from Sweden and Ukrainian side Dnipro. Napoli have made a terrific start to the current Serie A campaign, winning all three of their opening games. Going forward, they have been one of the most exciting sides in Europe over the last year. Last season they enjoyed a remarkable phase in Europe and they would like to reach the same level this year too. PSV have been rejuvenated under the vastly experienced Dick Advocaat. The start of the season has seen them clinching the Johan Cruijff Schaal (Johan Cruijff Shield) and winning the Europa League qualifier with a record margin. With a rich array of talents in their squad, PSV faithful will be hoping for an extended run in Europe this time. The clashes between these two sides would definitely excite football fans. Dnipro and AIK would have to be at their very best if they wish to gain anything from the group. This will be AIK’s first participation in Europa League group stage. AIK are approaching the end of their domestic campaign where they have a good chance of winning the title. So they would need to balance both fronts carefully to not miss out the chances of good results. Dnipro too have a have good start to their domestic campaign. However, a good run in the group stage is difficult to perceive against such strong opponents. With limited squad strength, manager Juade Ramos will find it difficult to get going.

GROUP G

FC Basel                  Videoton           K.R.C. Genk            Sporting CP

Group G will see last season’s Europa League semi-finalist Sporting Lisbon competing against FC Basel, Videoton from Hungary and Belgium club Genk. All these teams have gone through managerial changes in recent times. So, without much experience in Europe, these managers’ credentials would be put to the testnow. Paulo Sousa has been able to overhaul Videoton to an extent and he would certainly want to continue with the good work. They have made a good start to the new season which includes winning the Magyar Kupa (Hungarian Cup) and qualifying for the Europa League group stage after three rounds of qualification. So if these are signs of things to come, the club can be hopeful of good results in this tournament. Basel stunned everyone last season after eliminating Manchester United and qualifying for the knock-out stage. However, the start to the new season hasn’t been quite according to plan for their manager Heiko Vogel in his first full season at helm. They could not repeat last season’s heroics in UCL and were eliminated in the play-offs. In Swiss League, which they have won for the last three seasons, they are yet to find their rhythm. So they must put things in perspective before the group stage starts. Genk too hasn’t had a good start to the season. They may fancy their chances in Group G but before that, they have to vastly improve their performance. A leaky defence has been their problem, which they must rectify. However, their relatively good performance in UCL last year will give their manager, Mario Been confidence ahead of their Europa League journey. Start to the new season for Sporting has been poor. After a bright start to his reign last season, things haven’t been according to plan for Ricardo Sá Pinto this season. They have been winless in their first three matches and thus must turn things around quickly to kick-start their season. However, a talented squad will give the manager confidence to qualify from the group stage.

GROUP H

Inter                       Partizan                  Neftchi               Rubin Kazan

Group H will have one of Europe’s top clubs and UCL 2010 champion Inter Milan playing against Rubin Kazan, Partizan of Serbia and European debutants Neftchi from Azerbaijan. It is really difficult to see anyone else other than Inter to top the group. With the experience they have in their squad, it would be very hard for them not to qualify for next round. Under young manager Andrea Stramaccioni, they have a sound start to the season. Inter will look to put last season’s mess behind them and get back to the level where they belong. With a few intelligent signings including that of Antonio Cassano, Inter’s squad is looking quite strong. A decent show in Europe is what their fans would be demanding this time. A major concern in the group would be to which side goes the second spot. Apparently, both Rubin Kazan and Partizan would be vying for that. After their good displays in Europe over the last three seasons, Rubin can be hopeful of making it to the next round. Their start to the new season has been average, winning four games out of eight while losing the rest four. Kurban Berdyev has been in charge of Rubin for over a decade and he will have to prepare his squad for the task. Partizan created history last season when they won the Serbian League for a record five consecutive times. However, their record in Europe has not been significant. The last time they moved to knock-out stage in Europe was in 2005. So this time they would want to better that record. Their form in domestic league has been good as usual and manager Vladimir Vermezović will want his team to perform at similar level this time in Europe. Rookies Neftchi will want to enjoy their first European experience. A few surprises by them here and there couldn’t be written off.  In their qualification campaign, Neftchi eliminated APOEL, the quarter-finalists in UCL last season. So it will be wrong to ignore them and they may well be the dark horse in the group.

GROUP I

Athletic Club              AC Sparta Praha                Lyon           H.I. Kiryat Shmona

Last year’s runners-up Athletic Club from Spain will start their campaign in Group I. They would be hoping to move one step further this time and clinch their first continental title. However, things have been difficult for them at the start of the season. There has been a rift between club hierarchy and manager Marcelo Bielsa. One of their best players, Javi Martinez has left the club while star striker Fernando Llorente too wants to leave the club. Their form has been very shaky with their defence leaking in goals. The squad too lacks depth to maintain performance in both domestic league and Europe. They have to sort out these issues as quickly as possible and make sure they can repeat their heroics of last season. Athletic will be joined by Lyon from France who are also trying to regain their form on the pitch. After the departure of Claude Puel, it would be a massive task for the new manager, Rémi Garde to put the records straight. Having lost their experienced duo of Hugo Lloris and Kim Källströmover the summer, the current squad would require to rise in the hour of need. Their form in the new season has been satisfactory and it is to be seen whether they can produce the same in Europe too. Sparta Praha and Hapoel Kiryat Shmona from Israel would be the other two clubs in the group. Sparta no longer boasts the glory of yesteryears and they are now mostly limited to participating in European competition. With the more glamorous clubs luring away their talented players, Sparta lacks the strength in their squad needed to succeed in Europe. H.K. Shmona are a club that came into existence just a decade ago. But their rise to prominence in Israel domestic league has been quite spectacular. Last season they won their first domestic title and followed that up with qualifying for Europa League group stage. They would have nothing to lose, rather staging a few upsets may be on the cards.

GROUP J

Panathinaikos                 S.S. Lazio             Tottenham                    NK Maribor

Tottenham, Lazio, Maribor and Panathinaikos will compete in Group J. Although Tottenham and Lazio appear to be the teams to qualify for the next round, it won’t be wise to ignore the other two teams, Panathinaikos or Maribor. Europa League is the perfect platform for the unsung clubs to rise above their weight. Tottenham are extremely unlucky as they have to participate in Europa League despite finishing fourth in English Premier League. The club have gone for a risky gamble this season by appointing Andres Villas-Boas in place of Harry Redknapp, who was instrumental in Tottenham’s success. After some significant changes in the squad, Villas-Boas has a talented team at his disposal that should do well. AVB would fondly remember the last time he managed Porto in Europa League and would require to produce similar results to justify his billing as one of the promising managers this season. Maribor from Slovenia would be hoping for a better campaign than last season when they finished bottom of the group. But it would be quite tough for them against experienced campaigners in Europe. Panathinaikos would need to step up this time if they really want to make a mark. Off—the-field issues have affected the club’s performance in recent times; a lot of players were sold last summer to compensate financially. With a bunch of young and unproven players, manager Jesualdo Ferreira would have to make things happen. In the new season, Lazio almost found a spring in their step; they started their Serie A campaign in a spectacular manner. Under new manager Vladimir Petković, they have settled in quickly and would be hoping for a good campaign in Europe this time.

GROUP K

Metalist Kharkiv          Bayer Leverkusen         Rosenborg BK              SK Rapid Wien

Group K consists of Bayer Leverkusen, Metalist from Ukraine, Rapid Wien and Rosenborg. Rapid and Rosenborg will be returning to Europe after one year’s absence. Rosenborg’s season is approaching its end. They would be eager to make a good show this time but how far they will be successful remains to be seen. Currently they lie third in their domestic league, just one point adrift of the leaders. Replicating the same form in Europe would be a challenge for their manager, Jan Jönsson. Rapid Wien would look to continue their good home form when they start their campaign in Europe. Last time, they failed to qualify for group stage, so would surely like to better this time. Last season, Metalist from Kharkhiv had a good run in Europa League. Inspite of their limited team strength, they reached the quarter-final where they lost narrowly to Sporting Lisbon. They would like to have a similar run this time too but challenges will be tougher. Metalist coach Myron Markevych has been in charge of the team for a long time and he would definitely like to surpass his own record. Leverkusen must have felt hard done by last season’s seven-goal drubbing against Lionel Messi’s Barcelona. They would look to put the record straight by a good performance in Europa this time. However, their form at the start of the season needs to improve drastically for achieving anything remarkable. After that debacle at Nou Camp, the club parted ways with Robin Dutt and have put Sami Hyypiä in the hot seat. Hyypiä’s boys have to show character if they are to prove their worth. With talent aplenty in the squad, hopefully they will come good as the tournament progresses.

GROUP L

Twente FC               Levante UD           Hannover 96            Helsinborg

The last group of the entire lot will witness four very interesting teams battle it out among them. Levante, Helsingborg, Hannover and FC Twente will be involved in Group L and it can go to the wire to decide the top two teams. Levante have been living a dream after they returned to top division two years back. With a stringent budget and lot of constraints, their achievement has been phenomenal. After finishing sixth last year in La Liga, they got the opportunity to play in Europa League play-off and they saw off Motherwell FC comfortably to qualify for group stage for the first time in their history. Although their start to the new season hasn’t been good, but their inspirational coach, Juan Ignacio Martinez (nicknamed JIM) would definitely want to put up a competitive performance. Helsinborg had to settle for Europa League group stage after they were defeated by Celtic FC in UCL play-off. Domestic form has not been good for them and in all probability, they won’t be returning to Europe next season. So they must make big of whatever chance they have this season. Hannover have been impressive in Bundesliga for the last two seasons and this season too they have started well. Last season they lost to Atletico Madrid, the champions in an evenly contested quarter-final. Manager Mirko Slomka would try to take his team further this season but for that they’ve got to qualify from this tough group. The last team in the group, FC Twente qualified for the group stage after a gruelling qualifying schedule. They have won all five matches in their domestic league this season and are sitting at the top of the table. The club supporters would be hopeful this season with the return of their iconic manager, Steve McClaren and his effect on the team has been immediate. Twente have a young and talented side that will try to go as far as possible in this season’s Europa League.

Calcio Re-Booted

Serie A returns with new drama and Debopam Roy brings you up-to-date on each of the 20 teams

There are times when the big movie franchises feel that they are not progressing with existing storylines and decide to reboot the franchise. Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy is probably the most relevant one in mind. Many a time, such a reboot is required for the franchise to remain relevant and introduce fresh ideas into the system. If one were to look at the boot of Europe, then the overwhelming theme seems to be ‘Reboot’. Starting from champions Juventus, to the newly promoted teams – Pescara, Torino and Sampdoria, each of them are undergoing changes significant enough to alter their immediate and long-term future. It is a sign of times. The league has lost its position of European pre-eminence, given how 2012-13 marks the first ever season that Serie A will send only three teams to the Champions League, with the third of them, only eligible for the qualification rounds. There are signs that a revolution has been set in. For a league which has been rocked and shocked by too many scandals, high-profile transfers out and random stunts by presidents and managers, it is but inevitable. Whether the season of change will ultimately lead to a new launching pad is of course a story we will keep evaluating throughout the year at Goalden Times.

(in alphabetical order)

Atalanta

2011-12 performance: Performed very creditably to finish on 46 points and 12th in the table. But for a six-point penalty imposed before the season, they could have even vied for European spots.

Transfer Market: Acquiring German Denis, who scored 16 goals last season on loan, was a no brainer. But it is the transfer of the talented Luca Cigarini, who is yet to live up to his evident potential that makes it a promising transfer window . Cigarini is one of those failed starlets of Italian football and a stint outside Serie A hasn’t helped either. Maybe Atalanta will provide that platform and with Denis upfront, will work in tandem to light up the Nerazzurri.

Average Age: 27.6 years

Manager: Stefano Colantuono is in his third season with Atalanta, having secured their promotion from Serie B and then a splendid finish last year. The 49-year-old, who favours a 4-2-3-1 formation, has a 43.75% win record and has managed his team to score over 100 league goals in the last two seasons.
Star: German Denis. With 16 goals last term, he was in the race for the capocannoniere. With Cigarini to pull the strings and provide assists, Denis can potentially reach or improve on that figure.
Watch Out For: Andrea Consigli has been a youth product of Atalanta and at 25, had earned his maiden Azzurri call-up against England in a friendly. With search for “Who Next” after Gianluigi Buffon, Consigli, who had twelve clean sheets in 35 matches last season, is a creditable contender.
Expectation: Like last year, Atalanta would again start off with points penalty. But only two this time round. They would expect a safe middle of the table position. But it all will depend if Denis can reprise his form of last year. With several mid-table teams weakening, it may not be such a bold statement to say that Atalanta will improve on their 12th position.
Prediction: Safe middle of the table
Bologna
2011-12 performance: Performed incredibly to finish in the top 10 teams. But for a stalling in form once they had reached the magical 40-point mark, historically a sign of top level safety, Bologna could well have finished with a European place. The architect of that performance was club captain and legend, Marco di Vaio with 10 goals and seven assists. They conceded only 43 goals which is the least conceded outside the top three.
Transfer Market: Di Vaio didn’t renew his contract and left for the MLS. His departure at 36 years of age was expected. What was unexpected was Bologna selling off Jean-François Gillet, the very dependable Belgian goalkeeper, to newly promoted Torino. The 33-year old custodian made his second move in as many years after being with Bari for over 11 years. And quotes like “I have no reason to find a new club, I’m very happy at Bologna and I do not see really why I should leave this city“, days before his transfer meant that Bologna really didn’t try hard enough to retain his services. Securing services of Gianluca Curci from Roma and Robert Acquafresca from Genoa will help somewhat in replacing Gillet and di Vaio, but the gulf in quality will tell.
Average Age: 25.6 years
Manager: Stefano Pioli was at the helm last year when Bologna went on that stupendous run. He remains in charge for another year. His preferred formation is 3-1-4-2. His Bologna side had a solid look with 39 goals scored and 33 conceded over the season.
Star: Alessandro Diamanti is the creative lynchpin of Bologna. Left-footed and mercurial, he has recently been regularly called up for the national team. He was influential last season with seven goals and assists apiece.
Watch Out For: Federico Rodriquez. He joined Bologna from Penarol via Genoa and a member of Uruguay’s team in the 2011 U20 World Cup, Rodriquez has the quality to shine through.
Expectation: Matching the previous season would be a humongous task. A more realistic option would be to secure mid-table safety.
Prediction: Safe middle of the table
Cagliari

2011-12 performance: They started the season well and were in the top 10 till the 23rd round but losses in the last rounds ended up being 15th with just goal difference to put them over Palermo.

Transfer Market: Cagliari’s biggest transfer move was the players that they managed to retain – Davide Astori, Radja Nainggolan and Andrea Cossu. Capture of Chilean forward Mauricio Pinilla from Palermo is the only high profile capture.

Average Age: 25.8 years

Manager: Massimo Ficcadenti was appointed as the Cagliari manager last season and then sacked within three months of the season only to be reappointed in March 2012. It is to be seen if the manager who prefers 4-3-1-2, can stay all season.

Star: Davide Astori. Growing up in the Milan youth system, he would have studied some of the best defenders of all time. At 25, and with Azzurri colours a reality, he was expected to move on but he himself rejected a €15m move to Russian side Zenit. Whether he can continue his impressive displays to convince Cesare Prandelli to make him a permanent fixture in the national team is to be seen.

Watch Out For: Vincenzo Camilleri is a 20-year old highly-rated defender. Having played in Serie B for a season, Camilleri has shown promise that he might be the next big Azzurri hope. Strong in the air and firm on the tackle, he still lacks a bit of composure, and exposure at Serie A will help him fulfil his promise.

Expectation: With a largely unchanged squad, the expectation is that Ficcadenti would be able to mould them in a way that they can go for mid-table safety. Last season’s experience shows that they tend to fall off the perch quite easily and if things start going pear-shaped then there is noone who could stop the rot.

Prediction: Barely escape relegation

Catania

2011-12 performance: Catania were one of the stories of the season especially under the managerial command of Vincenzo Montella. They finished 11th overall but were within European spots till the 30th round.

Transfer Market: They sold off Maxi Lopez, who was already on loan at Milan for the last six months of the season. They managed to retain the rest of the team, including deep-lying midfielder Francesco Lodi, who Milan had wanted as a possible return to (Andrea) Pirlo-like formation.

Average Age: 26.2 years

Manager: Catania wanted to retain the services of the hugely impressive Montella but saw him joining Sampdoria. So they punted for Rolando Maran – a 49-year old journeyman manager who has never managed in Serie A and whose only claim to fame has been taking Varese to the Serie B play-off last season. With his first time in Serie A, he would remain a prime candidate to be the first managerial casualty of the season.

Star: Francesco Lodi was one of the big success stories of the season, so much so that there was a real push for him to be included in the Euro squad of Prandelli as a vice-Pirlo. He scored nine goals and created seven in the league. Left-footed and brilliant in free kicks, he is a rare commodity in the Italian football. When Milan came calling in summer, he rejected showing rare loyalty – “Catania had given me a chance from obscurity and I am grateful to them. I would not leave them for any club.”

Watch Out For: Growing up in the famed Cantera of Atletico Madrid and debuting for them at 17 years 8 months, Sergio Gontán Gallardo or Keko, was thought to be a prodigy. But the potential has not been fulfilled and he has joined Catania as a free transfer. In a league not known to blood youngsters, Keko would have to work hard to gain favour.

Expectation: Gain mid-table safety and push for a top ten finish. But if things go pear shaped, don’t expect the club to be patient. Maran would be the odds-on manager to be sacked.

Prediction: Middle of the table safety

Chievo

2011-12 performance: The Flying Donkeys have defied many conventions over the season. In 2011-12, they provided a solid defence and enough attacking acumen to finish 10th. It was a remarkable position for a club with meagre budget. Credit for that would go to a mean defence that conceded only 45 goals – the seventh best in the league.

Transfer Market: They lost two of their best performers in Francesco Acerbi to Milan and Michael Bradley to Roma. Both made richly deserved jumps, but their replacements are not quite their level. Dario Dainelli is a 33-year-old who was a backup defender at Fiorentina while Paul Papp is an untried 22-year-old from Romanian side FC Vaslui. Getting Marco Rigoni from relegated Novara was a smart piece of business. Rigoni scored 11 goals with eight assists for the relegated team last season.

Average Age: 28.8 years

Manager: Dominico di Carlo continues from his previous year and hopes to repeat the performance of last year. In charge of Chievo for the second time (he earlier had coached them for two seasons from August 2010), di Carlo favours a tight defence with swift counters. His favourite formation is 4-3-1-2.

Star: It’s very hard to identify a star when a team collectively punches way above its weight but keeper Stefano Sorrentino is probably the closest you will get to one. Playing for Chievo, his last three seasons, has had 10, 12 and 13 clean sheets in the league. As that number is increasing over the seasons, one can expect another solid shot-stopping season under the bar. At 33, he may have passed the age for playing for Italy, but he remains one of the most consistent performers in the league.

Watch Out For: Alberto Paloschi. A dream debut for Milan and subsequent growth at Parma meant a lot was expected of him when he joined Chievo on loan. However, injuries have curtailed his performances. At 22, he should still count age on his side and with parent club Milan undergoing a revolution, a bright season at Chievo should see him called back pronto to lead the Rossoneri.

Expectation: As always, you expect Chievo to punch above their weight and avoid relegation. Their team ethic is superb and that is what has allowed them to do it year after year.

Prediction: Escape relegation and mid-table

Fiorentina

2011-12 performance: Fiorentina had a wretched season marred by the sacking of two managers – Sinisa Mihajlovic, midway through and his replacement Delio Rossi later in the season. The lead striker, Alberto Gilardino was sold off and the team finished a lowly 13th. This from a team that was playing Champions League regularly and beating the likes of Liverpool home and away to qualify for the knockout rounds – last season was a huge letdown. Though they did manage to keep their influence in the deciding title by beating Milan 2-1 at home – their first loss of the season at home, which ultimately put Juventus ahead of Milan for the last decisive phase of the league.

Transfer Market: Director of Sport Daniele Prade and the owners Della Valle family have ensured that Fiorentina buy reinforcements throughout the squad. Prominent buys include Juan Cuadrado from Udinese, Mounir El Hamdaoui from Ajax, Gonzalo Rodriguez from Villareal and a trio of playmakers – Alberto Aquilani from Liverpool, Borja Valero from Villareal and Matias Fernandez from Sporting. It is a makeover that was long needed. Add in the fact that they have retained some of the best young talents like Stevan Jovetic, Adem Ljajic and Michele Camporese and you see that this team is ready to challenge for European spots again.

Average Age: 25.3 years

Manager: Vincenzo Montella was one of the managers last season – winning hearts with his attacking displays with Catania and taking them to a strong finish. Prade managed to lure him from Catania and give him a project. If Montella manages to do justice to this project, he would surely install himself as one of the favourites for the national team job once Prandelli’s tenure is up.

Star: Stevan Jovetic, at 22 has already been a subject of €50m bid from Manchester City. Bought for €8m in 2008, he has suffered cruciate ligament rupture in 2010 which set him back a long way. In 2011-12, in 27 matches he scored 14 times with six assists. At 22 years, his stock can only rise and this may be a season where he takes Fiorentina back to European spots.

Watch Out For: Matija Nastasic was the other Fiorentina player whom Man City wanted as part of that €50m bid. At 19, he is already a full Serbian national and a centre-back with immense promise. He played 24 matches last season and scored twice. For an 18-year old defender to break into a Serie A team and have his own spot is no mean feat.

Expectation: With influential signings all around the park, and the managerial acumen of Montella, Fiorentina would hope for a European spot finish. Some of the outstation talents like Valero and Fernandez may take time to settle in Serie A but if the strong youth can rally along with old pros like Juan Manuel Vargas, Fiorentina can even go into the top three and a Champions League spot.

Prediction: Finish in Europa League spots

Genoa

2011-12 performance: Genoa had a horrible 2011-12. From the 31st round onwards, they were 17th in the league and stayed in that position (by a gap of six points) till the end. For a club with high investment in terms of players, it was a catastrophic season. And even that last spot of the league survival wouldn’t have been possible if not for the 19 goals from Rodrigo Palacio. That they conceded a league high of 69 goals was much responsible for the plight.

Transfer Market: Genoa is a study on its own. The number of players that pass through the oldest football club in Italy is quite amazing. It’s as if every transfer season they change their entire team. With a disastrous season, Genoa, quite justifiably could plan for a reboot. So out went Palacio, the top-scorer, Miguel Veloso was shipped to Kiev and keeper Eduardo dumped in the Turkish league. A lot of Genoa-owned players were sold off too – Mattia Destro being the most prominent name. Destro, co-owned by Siena and Genoa was sold to Roma for €11.5m.  None of the incoming players are prominent names – promising midfielders Alex Merkel and Andrea Bertolacci were brought from Milan and Roma in exchange of Stephan el Shaarawy and Destro, respectively. Julian Velazquez is the big defensive signing from Independiente, Argentina.

Average Age: 25.5 years

Manager: The story of Genoa’s managerial merry-go-round can best be described thus: Davide Ballardini (pre-season) -> Alberto Malesani (December 2011) -> Pasquale Marino (April 2) -> Alberto Malesani (April 22). Luigi De Canio was given the reins on April 22 and so far, he still has a hold on that position. But with as fickle a President as Enrico Preziosi, De Canio would do very well to cover a year in that position. De Canio is an experienced manager who has even managed QPR for a year. Playing an aggressive 4-3-3, De Canio has managed Udinese, Reggina, Siena and Lecce in Serie A.

Star: Alberto Gilardino has been the ‘nearly’ man of Italian football. His rise at Parma and then move to Milan and a Champions League win with Milan along with the World Cup win with the Azzurri couldn’t mask the fact that he is not cut out for the constant pressure from the fans in a big team. A move to Fiorentina and he seemed to thrive again, till the Viola fell on hard times themselves and then sold him to Genoa. The misfortunes though went with him. Now a senior, he has to find it in himself if he can lead a new look Genoa to redemption.

Watch Out For: Ciro Immobile is the next big hope of Juventus fans. On loan at Genoa, he might find his first season at Serie A a daunting one. The 22-year old €1.85m striker though has been banging goals in Serie B for fun. Last season at Pescara, he scored 28 goals and created 7 in only thirty-seven matches. If he can score half that amount, he would be playing in front of his beloved Juventini fans the next season.

Expectation: Every year, Genoa promise much while delivering little. The 17th spot was the nadir of the lot. Anything worse would mean relegation. With the quality at his disposal, Genoa should be comfortably finishing in the top three. But a slip like last season is quite possible again.

Prediction: Middle of the table safety

Internazionale

2011-12 performance: Inter self-destructed in spectacular manner all season. First they hired a manager (Gian Piero Gasperini) who only plays with three at the back. Then when he asked for specific players, they were not given to him and he was the first manager sacked in the season after only five games. In came the Roman – Claudio Ranieri and in his own way he had taken Inter to the top four but then from January end to March in 10 matches, they won one, managed to score in three and lost six matches. That they finished in European spots was made possible by a topsy-turvy win in the derby which ensured Juventus would be the champions. Missing out on the Champions League was a huge setback.

Transfer Market: For much of the season, Inter’s mercato was dominated by how they were unsuccessful in offloading some of the high-earning old players – like Julio Ceser, Maicon, Dejan Stankovic, etc. But the reinforcements have been shrewd and throughout the ranks. Samir Handanovic has been the best shot-stopper in Serie A for quite some time. Rodrigo Palacio scored 19 goals last season for Genoa. Matias Silvestre is an improvement on the 35-year old Lucio who was offloaded to Juventus for free. Fredy Guarin of Porto and Gaby Mudingayi of Bologna provide some midfield steel. The last minute exchange of Cassano for Pazzini also favours the Serpenti. With a little bit of luck they would really push Juventus for the Serie A title.

Average Age: 26.8 years

Manager: Ranieri had gone when that severe drought streak had hit and in came Andrea Stramaccioni, the U19 manager. President Massimo Moratti has kept faith in the 36-year old manager whose biggest claim to fame is winning the 2011–12 NextGen series with Inter Primavera team. But the young manager did win five of the nine matches he was in charge of Inter after Ranieri’s sacking and that included the most important derby win. Stramaccioni favours a 4-3-3 offensive formation and it is to be seen if he can be the first manager to succeed in dismantling the strong Mourinho hangover that Inter still suffer from.

Star: Despite differences in opinion which once had almost led to him being sold to Manchester United, Wesley Sneijder remains the heart and soul of Inter. If he is on song, then Inter will soar. Plagued by injuries throughout last season, he only managed 4 goals and five assists. No wonder that Inter had such a misfiring season. With reinforcements of calibre around him, Sneijder could reclaim the title of being the best trequartista in the peninsula.

Watch Out For: Coutinho was bought as a 17-year-old and left at his club Vasco da Gama to mature. When he finally arrived at Inter, he couldn’t really enthral the audience who expected him to be Inter’s answer to Milan’s Pato. After a season long loan at Espanyol, who at least guaranteed him a starting spot, Coutinho is back at Inter for a second stint. And at 20, this might be his last chance yet to impress or else be shipped out again.

Expectation: After a season spent outside Champions League football, Inter are focussed on an assault at the scudetto. The team has been rebuilt with care and the personnel are probably just right to achieve that goal.

Prediction: Finish within top three

Juventus

2011-12 performance: Juventus last lost a Serie A match back on May 15, 2011 to Parma. They again face Parma in the league opener of 2012-13. In between, they have not lost a single game. The feat of winning a scudetto without losing has only been achieved once – by Milan in 91-92 but then the league wasn’t 20-team strong. Hence the Bianconeri can be rightfully proud of their achievement. That they managed it with their top-scorer not even hitting 10 goals is a testament of the spirit with which the whole team combined. Heroes came up when they were required. The defence had superheroes though – conceding only 20 goals, an all-time low in a 20 team Serie A competition.

Transfer Market: Juventus have bought their players early and have bought well. Kwadwo Asamoah and Mauricio Isla of Udinese are two priceless signings for the midfield while bringing back Sebastian Giovinco can be seen as a return of the prodigal son. Martin Caceres was bought after his loan spell of last season and Paul Pogba and Lucio came on free transfers to show that the club was aware of players on either end of the age spectrum, who were having problems in their existing clubs. They have also managed to offload the unwanted extra players like Elijero Elia, Milos Krasic and Felipe Melo. Returning to Champions League after a hiatus of two seasons, Juventus have bought well and sold off to free wages and look primed for another scudetto.

Average Age: 27.1 years

Manager: Antonio Conte won the scudetto in his first time at Juventus but he has been involved in the calcioscommesse scandal for some of his games in charge of Siena. He has been handed a 10-month touchline ban, which would not debar him from coaching the squad in general. Juventus have stood behind Conte in his appeal to the court and have promoted Conte’s assistant, Massimo Carrera as the caretaker manager. Pending the court’s appeal process, Conte would only remain a figure in the background but Carrera, who has won the Italian Super Cup and the Trofeo Berlusconi (the winners of which have never gone on to win the scudetto) can legitimately claim that Juventus won’t miss Conte much.

Star: Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo remain the lynchpins of this Juventus. While Buffon led the moststingy defence of the season, Pirlo revived his career to notch up a league-high 13 assists. Both had a wonderful Euro 2012 where Italy reached the finals. But with Juventus returning to Champions League, they would require to be at the top of their game for the season, if Juventus are to fight on equal footing in three different trophies.

Watch Out For: Paul Pogba. He is a highly-rated youngster who Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t really want to release. But promise of more first-team, brought him to Juventus and in his first outing in the Trofeo Berlusconi, he looked quite assured and comfortable. His technique is well suited for Serie A but it is going to be a test of his temperament, if he can withstand the sharp examination of the Italian league.

Expectation: A repeat scudetto and at least a quarter-final in the Champions League. But they could be found out in the Champions League especially as they will not be seeded there and hence will face a tough group.

Prediction: Would finish in the top three

Lazio

2011-12 performance: Lazio was one of the over-performing sides of the league last year. Their incredible run had ensured that they were in top three for most of the season but in the end finished fourth, pipped to the final Champions League spot by Udinese. It was a revival for the Biancocelesti after a long time. Their revival was marked as much by the performances of free signing Miroslav Klose and Brazilian Hernanes, as it was by the wily tactician Edy Reja. But sections of the fans were unhappy with some of the displays and Reja threatened to quit in March, only to stay along till the end of the season before leaving.

Transfer Market: Till date, Lazio has not spent a penny in the transfer market officially. Players have come on or returned from loan, or have been captured for free. Similarly they haven’t sold anyone. It’s a neat equation altogether. President Claudio Lotito believes in the squad and has added only zero cost players. Prominent among those returning include Mauro Zarate (on loan at Inter from Lazio), Ederson Campos(on a free transfer from Lyon), Antonio Candreva (on loan from Udinese) and Argentine goalkeeper, Juan Carizzo (onloan from Lazio at Catania).

Average Age: 28.7 years

Manager: Vladimir Petkovic is one of only two foreigners managing in Serie A this season (incidentally the other foreign-born manager is his Roma rival Zdenak Zeman). Petkovic is a Croatian who took Swiss nationality and managed exclusively in the Swiss league with a solitary abortive stint in Turkey. At 49, he is a big gamble by Lotito and Petkovic is another manager who could well be the first to be sacked in the season, given the expectations.

Star: Hernanes is in the third season at Lazio and has been the biggest influence in the recent upsurge of Lazio fortunes. With eight goals he was the second highest goal scorer behind Miroslav Klose who hit thirteen. He is the biggest draw in a side which looks underwhelming but has been producing results in the last couple of years domestically.

Watch Out For: Since his transfer to Lyon in 2008 as a 22-year-old, Ederson has flattered to deceive. Four years and many injuries later, he has finally sought a new destination. At Lazio, he will not be under much scrutiny that was present at Lyon because Lazio captured him for free. That, coupled with the presence of Hernanes, might give him the confidence to shine in Europe.

Expectation: Lazio are expected to break into the Champions League spots that they missed so narrowly (and also because Italy lost the fourth spot in Champions League). However, with no significant reinforcement and a new manager, it may actually turn out very differently.

Prediction: Finish just outside European spots

Milan

2011-12 performance: It was a season of so near yet so far. The injuries piled up one after another and at one time there were 13 players (all of whom would have featured if fit) who were out and despite the team rallying long and hard on three different fronts (rivals Juventus only were fighting domestically), they ended up short on each of those fronts. Still a runner-up by four points after the closest scudetto run in years, a semi-final loss in extra time in Coppa Italia and a quarter-final exit to Barcelona did not mean the end of the world. That happened at the end of the season. With a generation of players leaving simultaneously, it was suddenly a Milan that fans couldn’t recognize anymore. But worse was to follow in the summer.

Transfer Market: The transfer market of Milan has been so skewed that they are the team with the biggest transfer surplus in Europe this season – close to €60m. The sale of top-scorer of the league, Zlatan Ibrahimovic (28 goals), and probably the best defender in the world, Thiago Silva meant that suddenly the team had lost its backbone as well as its true superstars upfront. Both the sales were due to economic consideration. In the last season before FFP came in, Milan wanted to balance the books. The tax laws in Italy had meant Zlatan’s €12m annual wages to be a herculean amount. PSG, while negotiating Ibra, put in a value of Thiago Silva which was a world record for a defender and Milan simply couldn’t say no in its economic condition. Worse was to follow when Antonio Cassano was sold to Inter in exchange with Gianpaolo Pazzini and Milan also agreed to pay Inter €7.5m over three years. It was a transfer that defied logic for the reason that Milan was paying the money to get a bench player while handing over a starter who had easily topped the assists charts of the Rossoneri last season despite being away for over six months due to an ischemic heart condition. The defence has been bolstered by Francesco Acerbi, whose total Serie A experience is of six months and Cristian Zapata, who has spent a miserable year at Villareal, who were relegated. There is a clear need for a left-back, an anchor in the midfield and a creative midfielder. It is to be seen if the Milan Director of Sport Adriano Galliani can unearth a few gems in the last few days of the transfer season.

Average Age: 27 years

Manager: With Conte getting banned for 10 months, Massimiliano Allegri starts the second consecutive season as the only manager to have won the scudetto among his peers in Serie A. It is his third year at the helm of the club and is probably his hardest. At Cagliari, where he made his name before switching to the San Siro, the manager thrived with a team that punched above its weight. He may have to go back to those lessons, given how lightweight the team has become after the mercato. If he manages to drag Milan into a title fight and finish within at least the top three, then it will be a huge achievement for his managerial career.

Star: Alex Pato is 22 and is only the second player ever to have scored over fifty goals in under 100 Serie A matches. Yet he has been bugged by injuries throughout the season and barely featured in Allegri’s plans. His tactical immaturity and passing incompetence has led to many fans asking him to be sold. Indeed in January 2012, PSG came up with a €36m  bid for Pato and despite the club agreeing to the deal, Pato himself put the brakes on it and chose to stay back. It was a rare show of loyalty and now with the sale of Ibra, with whom it was felt Pato was being stunted, the only way is up. The club and Pato both need each other in this most difficult of seasons.

Watch Out For: Mattia de Sciglio is 19, has come up through the ranks of Milan youth and is probably the best defensive full-back Milan has produced from its youth sector since the times of Francesco Coco and Cristian Panucci. He is the designated understudy at right-back to Ignazio Abate (now an Azzurri regular) but can also fit in at left-back despite being a right-footed player. It reminds most Milanisti of another legendary and much more illustrious left-back, probably the best left-back of all time, who was also a right-footed player and came through the youth ranks of Milanello – Paolo Maldini. If de Sciglio has even half that impact, in his Milan career, then he would become the face of Milan for the rest of the decade.

Expectation: The expectations are pretty low among the fans and many have asked for a refund of the season tickets. For a club as illustrious and well decorated as Milan, those that have asked for such refunds may as well look elsewhere to get their calcio fill. The big names have left and so have the creative ones. But the ones who are staying are a hardworking bunch. Allegri knows how to make a team punch above its weight.

Prediction: Finish outside top three

Napoli

2011-12 performance: Napoli underwent a reality check this season. Qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in their history, they had a run which they can be justly proud of. But for some spirited Chelsea at home, they would have easily qualified for a richly deserved quarter-final against Benfica. Who knows what they could have achieved there. But the strain of that success had its effect on the Serie A performance. The team which ran Milan close in 2010-11, never came within the top two teams after the third round. Their eventual fifth position denied them Champions League football but the quality of the side came through when they beat Juventus (their only defeat of the season) in the Coppa Italia final.

Transfer Market: The sale of Ezequiel Lavezzi was a big blow. But PSG offered €26m for him and that was that. The good thing was that Napoli managed to reinvest that money into the transfer kitty by buying Eduardo Vargas from Chile (already on loan last season), Goran Pandev (already on loan from Inter), Valon Behrami and Alessandro Gamberini from Fiorentina.

Average Age: 29 years

Manager: Walter Mazzarri is the oldest serving manager in Serie A, having been in charge of Napoli since 2009-10. The manager who employs the 3-1-4-2 formation has slowly but steadily made the Partenopei a force to reckon with again since the heady days of Diego. With the loss of Lavezzi, one of the three tenors, Mazzarri has to either reinvent the tactical structure or find a player who can fill in for him. Some would say that Napoli under him has probably had their moments and there can’t be any higher peaks to climb. However, a scudetto push is not beyond this bunch and Mazzarri will have to reignite those desires among new players.

Star: There has never been a striker at Napoli since Careca (if you don’t call Diego a striker, that is), who could strike fear into the hearts of defenders, like Edinson Cavani does. Strong, lithe, tactically superb, hardworking, good with head and long rangers, Cavani is probably the strongest striker in the league. In two seasons at Napoli, he has hit 67 goals and eighteen assists in his 96 games. That included 5 goals and two assists in 8 Champions League games. At only 25, his best days are ahead and Napoli’s ambitions of a scudetto are oriented around his form.

Watch Out For: Lorenzo Insigne is probably the best young thing to come up through Napoli youth ranks. Last season at Pescara in Serie B (on loan), he scored 18 goals and fourteen assists in 37 matches. It is not since Gianfranco Zola, that Napoli have a homegrown boy who can lead the line. Insigne is short, speedy and plays on the left wing – provoking further memories and comparisons. But he is not Gianfranco Zola – at least not yet. And at 21, with the sale of Lavezzi, it is a big chance for him to seize this moment and establish himself in the eyes of the fans.

Expectation: A strong scudetto finish and a finish within the top three. The quality is evident right through the side but last season showed that Cavani’s brilliance alone is not enough to pull Napoli into Champions League. With Lavezzi leaving, there will be even more a need for quality. And even though there isn’t the strain of a Champions League, Napoli would like to defend their Coppa Italia and also have a decent run in the Europa League.

Prediction: Just finish outside top three

Palermo

2011-12 performance: Palermo is a team where the President is renowned for hiring and firing managers and for the team to defy convention and perform despite selling out of stars. Last season Palermo sacked three managers and two of them were even before the season had started. Bertolo Mutti, who finished the season, was sacked soon after. The team too struggled and barely avoided relegation, finishing 16th even though they were 10th in the league as late as the 32nd round. That run was possible because of Fabrizio Miccoli having a season to remember – 16 goals and twelve assists. But he fought a lonely battle – being responsible for 28 of the 52 goals that Palermo scored. They also conceded 62 goals – the second highest in the league and with such a porous defence, it was lucky that they managed to stay alive.

Transfer Market: Like last two seasons, they have sold off a long time first-team regular this season. After Cavani and Nocerino, it is Federico Balzaretti to Roma. They have also sold Matias Silvestre to Inter and Mauricio Pinilla to Cagliari. The reinforcements are all unknowns – 18-year old Uruguayan forward Sebastian Sosa, 18-year old Argentine forward Paulo Dybala and 30-year old Uruguayan Egidio Arevalo playing in the Mexican league. Goalkeeper Samir Ujkani is a good capture from relegated Novara.

Average Age: 25.9 years

Manager: Managing Palermo means keeping your biodata on the ready because you never know when you will be sacked and you need to find a new job. 55-year old Giuseppe Sannino is in his first stint at Palermo and having led a Siena side, which many thought would get relegated to a mid-table safety last season, is thought to be ideal for this Palermo side. The decline in the quality is very apparent and it will take all of Sannino’s managerial guile (provided he stays on the right side of President Maurizio Zamparini) to keep Palermo above relegation.

Star: At 33, his best days are thought to be behind him. But pint-sized Fabrizio Miccoli had a stellar season responsible for 28 goals of the 52 that Palermo scored last season. Such a performance may not be repeatable again but it is on his shoulder that Palermo’s hopes of remaining in Serie A depend.

Watch Out For: Josip Ilicic sparkled in his debut season in Serie A two seasons back scoring eight and creating eight more. Last season was the inevitable second season blip – only two goals and six assists. Now having spent two seasons, he has grown as an attacking midfielder and a lot will depend on his creative prowess on how potent the Palermo attack is.

Expectation: Finish middle of the table with comfort. Though Zamparini’s mood and Miccoli’s fitness will play major roles. The team is light on quality and a defence that leaks goals (with no major reinforcements) should be cannon fodder for the more proficient attacks.

Prediction: Relegated

Parma

2011-12 performance: Parma provided an astonishing late surge in the table last season. From being 17th and just above the relegation zone after the 29th round, they improved to eighth (Roma finished seventh on goal difference) and just two points behind sixth placed Inter. Such a meteoric rise was as much due to Roberto Donadoni’s managerial acumen as it was due to the performance of Sebastian Giovinco; 15 goals and eleven assists – responsible for 26 goals out of the 54 Parma scored. Parma also had a solid defence and finished with a positive goal difference, something that no other team below them managed.

Transfer Market: Parma thrives on developing low cost players on loan and co-ownership and then selling big once those players have risen in value. Giovinco is the latest such name, with Parma cashing in on 50% of the players for €11m. Low cost acquisitions include Marco Parolo and Sotiris Ninis on a free transfer and the costliest acquisition is €4m spent on Colombian forward Dorlan Pabon. With very few days of the transfer season remaining, Parma will probably loan in more promising players and get their team to a position of strength.

Average Age: 26.6 years

Manager: Roberto Donadoni is a Milan and Azzurri legend and a former Azzurri manager. But his worth as a manager has always been questioned with the idea that he became the Azzurri top spot more by default (with other contenders like Carlo Ancelotti and Fabio Capello unavailable when Marcello Lippi resigned). He had been sacked at Napoli and Cagliari after his Italy adventure and the Parma stint was as much a challenge on his managerial acumen as anything. He struggled throughout the season but then that fantastic sprint for European spots at the fag end showed his capability. The new season should see him in the same role of trying to lift a bunch of talented youngsters to a respectable league position.

Star: Antonio Mirante has long been on the cusp of national selection without ever breaking into the fold. But he is a solid if unspectacular keeper and managed to keep seven clean sheets in the previous league season.

Watch Out For: Sotiris Ninis has long been called a wonder kid and his FIFA profile claims he “possesses a dizzying range of skills to go with sublime vision, an electrifying change of pace and fearsome long-range shooting skills“. So far though, that has not earned him a move out of his first senior club, Panathinaikos. Now at Parma, he has the perfect opportunity to hone the tactical and mental side of his game to go along with the skills that he possesses.

Expectation: Fight bravely and finish middle of the table. They have lost their brightest jewel in Giovinco but make no mistake, Parma will make a lot of bigger teams pay through their nose.

Prediction: Fight bravely and avoid relegation

Pescara

2011-12 performance: Pescara gained promotion as the champions of Serie B. It was only the sixth time that they would play in Serie A. Of the five previous seasons, only once have they been able to avoid immediate relegation back to Serie B. Pescara though absolutely rampaged Serie B last season scoring 90 goals in forty-two matches. They also conceded 55 goals (only two other teams in the top 10 of Serie B conceded more) showing that they believed in attacking and letting the rest to chance. This is the typical essence of the man who managed them – Zdenak Zeman, whose legendary attacking intent has often led to spectacular wins and defeats. This time though he had Ciro Immobile scoring 28 goals, Lorenzo Insigne scoring 18 and Marco Sansovini scoring 16. From the midfield, Marco Verratti orchestrated games providing nine assists.

Transfer Market: Pescara lost their top three goalscorers, top assist man as well as their iconic manager in the summer. The most high-profile signing has been Vladimir Weiss from Man City for €1.8m. All the other signings are not at all known even in the leagues from which they have come.

Average Age: 24.2 years

Manager: Giovanni Stroppa was once in charge of the Milan Primavera team – till 2010-11 season. Last season he managed Sudtirol in the lower divisions of Italy. After losing Zeman, Pescara have turned to him as manager. The 44-year old Stroppa’s net experience of managing a senior team is exactly one year and it would be a tall task for him to make sure Pescara avoid the immediate drop-back to Serie B.

Star: Jonathas is a 23-year old Brazilian forward. Tall at 1.90m, he scored 16 times with seven assists for Brescia in Serie B last season. He is expected to be the lynchpin of the attack in the coming season. With Weiss in the team, Jonathas can expect good service from the wings and if he manages even half those numbers, he would have gone a long way in saving Pescara.

Watch Out For: Mattia Perin is 19, and is owned by Genoa. But was loaned out to Padova in Serie B last year and performed commendably. It is expected that he would be the goalkeeper for Pescara this season, in which case he would be the youngest custodian of any teams starting this season.

Expectation: Fight bravely against relegation. But with en masse departures of the figures who led Pescara to their promotion departing in the summer, it seems a lost cause already. With an unproven manager at helm, it would be nigh impossible to avoid the last position.

Prediction: Relegated

Roma

2011-12 performance: Roma started last season in a new model – the Barcelona model. They bought young players from round the globe, including loaning Bojan from Barcelona. The manager was Barcelona youth team manager – Luis Enrique. The formation he played was the 4-3-3 of Barcelona. But the on-field results were not remotely Barcelona-like. Roma never reached higher than fifth (twice) and finished just outside the European spots – two points behind Inter. One of the new signings, Miralem Pjanic made seven assists. But no one else made any significant impression. But with virtually a new team under a new management and new manager, it was expected there will be growing up pains. The supporters have been mature enough to handle that. Enrique left after a season but Roma’s project has taken a turn for the extreme with maverick manager Zdenak Zeman in charge. One can only stay hopeful that the youthful Romans will get their due.

Transfer Market: Roma has had probably the most impressive mercato behind Juventus. They sold off the very impressive Fabio Borini to Liverpool but bought intelligently – young Italian striker Mattia Destro, Panagiotis Tachtsidis, who shone for Greece in the Euros, Brazilians Leandro Castan, Marquinho and Marquinhos. But the two transfers which really shone through were the acquisitions of Michael Bradley, after an exceptional season at Chievo and Federico Balzaretti, who is the starting Azzurri left-back.

Average Age: 25.6 years

Manager: Zdenak Zeman is the most controversial manager in Serie A – probably of all time. He has been managing in Italy since the start of the 80s and is in his second stint at Roma, the earlier one having ended after being in charge for two years. Whatever one may say about the man, he ensures goals for his team. His Pescara scored 90 goals last season in forty-two matches. His Foggia scored 67 in thirty-four matches. He is also a noted advocate of youth and Roma has probably found the perfect man to lead their still-born project in Zeman.

Star: A €30m bid is made by Man City, who promise to double your wages and your team is not one of the winningest clubs in Europe. You decide to reject the bid. That is Daniele de Rossi. The one-club men are few and far and when you play for a less fashionable club like Roma, it should be all the more creditable. With Francesco Totti entering the last part of his career, de Rossi would lead I Lupi soon enough. No other gesture could have proved his love for Roma than the one he took in rejecting the millions from Man City.

Watch Out For: When he was signed, Miralem Pjanic was already a familiar name in Europe, thanks to his exploits with Lyon and it was a surprise that he left Lyon for the Italian capital. In his first season, he showed his worth already topping the assist charts for Roma with nine and also scoring thrice. He is expected to flourish under Zeman more and would be entrusted with the primary creative role in the midfield.

Expectation: A scudetto would be a great result but otherwise finishing within the Champions League spots would suit Roma fine. It has to be remembered that they have completely turned around their team composition in just two years and finishing within the top three would be a vindication of the path the leadership has taken.

Prediction: Finish within top three

Sampdoria

2011-12 performance: Sampdoria spent the last season in Serie B, managed to come up at first chance but it was a laboured promotion. Sampdoria finished sixth in Serie B to claim the final spot of promotional play off. The third placed team played against sixth, and fourth against fifth over two legs. The winners of those matches then played among themselves in a a two-leg match to obtain the right to be promoted to Serie A. Sampdoria beat Sassuolo (third) 3-2 over two legs and then Varese 4-2 over two legs, to qualify. Nicola Pozzi with 15 goals was the most memorable performer of the season.

Transfer Market: Sampdoria made a few major purchases including strikers Maxi Lopez from Catania and Eder from Cesena. They also bought Renan – a defensive midfielder from Romanian side CFR Cluj. A couple of full-backs have also arrived – Lorenzo de Silvestri from Fiorentina and Andrea Costa from Reggina. Utility man Marcelo Estigarribia will be returning after spending last season on loan at Juventus.

Average Age: 25.9 years

Manager: Ciro Ferrara is a Juventus legend and has been assistant manager to Roberto Donadoni for the national team. He has also managed the Italian U21 team for the last two years. But his only stint at Serie A managership – at his beloved Juventus ended in a sacking within six months. He is seen as a promising manager and Sampdoria have given him a second chance to show his worth.

Star: Maxi Lopez was on loan at Milan in January and had a deal with Milan to make the loan permanent. However, Milan didn’t take the offer, but that decision was questioned by fans once Ibra and later Cassano were sold off. He is a proven goal scorer in the domestic league and having played for Milan and Barcelona in his career already, he needs a place where the team would be built around him. Sampdoria might just give him that option.

Watch Out For: Andrea Poli was supposed to be the next Andrea Pirlo and much was expected when he was loaned to Inter. Inter though had a horrible season and didn’t take up the option on Poli. After a season, Poli has thus returned to Sampdoria and he has to show the same level of consistency which initially provided grounds for the comparisons with Pirlo.

Expectation: To finish mid-table. Sampdoria have a decent squad and a young and resourceful manager. Their acquisitions are solid and would help them achieve their dream. They though started off with a handicap of one point, having been found guilty in the calcioscommesse trials.

Prediction: Finish middle of the table

Siena

2011-12 performance: Siena was one of the odds on teams to be relegated last season after gaining promotion and even though they spent 10 rounds stuck at 17th position, they never went below that and ultimately rallied in the second half of the season to finish 14th. The most remarkable thing of this display was a stingy defence which only conceded 45 goals in thirty-eight matches, which is the sixth best in the league. So even though they scored only 45 goals, their defensive displays allowed them to survive the drop.

Transfer Market: Siena lost top-scorer Mattia Destro to Roma but have managed to keep most of the other players. There were few reinforcements, the most notable of them being Portuguese centre-back Neto. But they did lose Serbian goalkeeper Zeljko Brkic, who was on loan from Udinese. Brkic was one of the pillars of the stingy defence that enabled Siena to maintain their hold of Serie A.

Average Age: 27.9 years

Manager: Giuseppe Sannino had crafted Siena’s stay in Serie A last season but when he left for Palermo, Serse Cosmi, a man noted for taking clubs in similar positions was appointed. Cosmi, whose last four assignments were with Lecce, Palermo, Livorno and Brescia respectively, has a tough job if he has to emulate Sannino and keep Siena afloat.

Star: This is truly a team without stars but if anyone can claim to be the lynchpin of the team it has to be Emanuele Calaio. Strong and tall, the Palermo born hitman scored 11 times in twenty-five matches and assisted twice. It was his personal best return in a season and it was required to keep Siena afloat. The 30-year-old would do well to repeat that feat, if he is to ensure Siena’s survival.

Watch Out For: Francesco Bolzoni was once a promising Inter Primavera player. But loaned out with no chance offered, he has waded from Genoa to Frosinone to Siena. At 23, it is probably just right for this central midfielder to start imposing himself in the games. Last season he played 16 matches scoring once but was instrumental in closing the defensive hatches.

Expectation: Fight bravely against relegation and punch above their weight to finish mid-table. However, the defensive solidity which was responsible for their survival could prove elusive this time with key loan players moving out. And if that was not enough, they would start with a penalty of six points and while last season Atalanta started with a similar points penalty and yet comfortably finished mid-table, it may just be beyond Siena.

Prediction: Relegated

Torino

2011-12 performance: Torino are one of the giants of Italian football but have languished in Serie B for the last three years after being the third and final team to be relegated on the last day of the season when they lost 3-2 away to Roma. They qualified for Serie A by finishing second in Serie B behind Pescara. Both Pescara and Torino had 83 points and it was two away goals that Pescara had scored at the league match at Torino that decided who finished first. Torino conceded only 28 goals in the campaign which is bettered only by cross-town rivals Juventus’ 20 goals conceded across Serie A and B. Much of that credit goes to the young defender Angelo Ogbonna who is already a steady member of the Azzurri.

Transfer Market: Keeping hold of Ogbonna was a triumph in its own.  Even though they sold off Mirko Antenucci – a man who scored 10 goals for them last season, reinforcements like Mario Santana from Napoli, Damiano Ferronetti from Udinese and Matteo Brighi from Roma have been useful. Signing the goalkeeper, Jean Francois Gillet from Bologna was another masterstroke. Belgian Gillet has been one of the most unsung goalkeepers in Serie A in last two seasons and he would add solidity to the already impressive defence of Torino.

Average Age: 25.9 years

Manager: Gianpiero Ventura was the man who was in charge of Torino last year, and he has been retained to give him a chance to continue his good work. Ventura prefers a 4-4-2 ‘double six’ formation (a formation with two holding midfielders) and his team would try and frustrate the big ones before snatching a goal here and there.

Star: Angelo Ogbonna is the one true world class player that Torino possess. Assured and calm in possession with brilliant anticipation, he has been marked out for greatness for a long time. Coming through the youth system, he has been a kind of prodigal son for Torino. So far Torino has managed to retain him despite interests from all the big clubs in the peninsula but if he manages to play to his potential in his first senior season in Serie A, then it would be tough for Torino to hold on to him.

Watch Out For: Gianluca Sansone is not a household name but it was this 25-year old diminutive left winger striker who singlehandedly accounted for 20 goals and nine assists for Sassuolo (total goals scored – 57) in Serie B last year. Sassuolo finished third, just three points off Torino and were later eliminated in the play offs by Sampdoria. Sansone will be making his Serie A debut this year and it is to be seen if he can reproduce the same form.

Expectation: Comfortably finish mid-table. With a team based on solid defence and a sound goalkeeper addition, Torino should be a mean and stingy defensive unit this season. The goal-scoring threats would be few but with the likes of Man City rejects Rolando Bianchi or Riccardo Meggiorini, Sansone can snatch vital goals here and there. They too would start with a one point penalty for calcioscommesse trials but they would be quietly confident of overcoming that deficit.

Prediction: Comfortably avoid relegation and finish middle of the table

Udinese

2011-12 performance: No praise would be enough in talking about Udinese’s campaign last season. The owners, Pozzo family have built a wonderful football franchise which is successful, plays entertaining calcio and yet remains profitable. Their scouting network is second to none and the same family owns Granada in Spanish Primera Division and Watford in English Championship. Thus with three clubs in three leagues, they are able to provide playing and developing time to a vast number of players. Like most years, they sold off some of their best players – Alexis Sanchez, Gokhan Inler, Cristian Zapata, Simone Pepe and yet improved on their fourth place finish a year earlier to finish third and thus maintain their hold on the final Champions League spot from Serie A. Captain Antonio di Natale led the chase with 23 goals and seven assists. Pablo Armero provided a further 10 more assists and Udinese pipped Lazio to the third spot by two points.

Transfer Market: Following their tradition, Udinese sold off some of their crown jewels in Mauricio Isla and Kwadwo Asamoah to Juventus, Samir Handanovic to Inter while 16-goal hitman German Denis’ loan move to Atalanta was made permanent. They brought in the hugely impressive Luis Muriel from Lecce and Zeljko Brkic from Siena – both of whom were on a loan there. Maicosuel, a 26-year old midfielder was their highest transfer in at €5.3m. Two more Brazilian midfield imports were Allan from Maldonaldo and Willians Fernandes from Flamengo. Closer home, they got Davide Faraoni from Inter and Cristian Pasquato from Juventus – two highly-rated youngsters. It was a very typical Udinese transfer window and despite selling some of their first team regulars, Udinese have the belief that they can yet again provide a strong Serie A season.

Average Age: 25 years

Manager: Francesco Guidolin has been in charge of Udinese since 2010-11 season, and in two seasons have taken Udinese to fourth and third on the league table. Natural progression would mean that they break into the top two but for that he has to ensure that his captain extraordinary – di Natale keeps producing a 20+ goal performance again. His Udinese is flexible enough to adjust to 3-5-2 or 4-3-3 as required and counter-attack at breathtaking speed is what marks his style of play.

Star: Antonio di Natale is a club icon and his records are quite incredible. In 2009-10 season he scored 29 goals and created 7 more. In 2010-11 season he had a dip and so scored 28 and created 6 more. Just to show he is mortal, in 2011-12, he only scored 23 and created 10 goals. It is a phenomenal run in any European league in the last three seasons.  If he produces another 20+ goals this year, Udinese would be assured of another top three finish.

Watch Out For: Luis Muriel is a 21-year old Colombian striker who has been burning the pace charts in Serie A. His pacy runs and finishes at such a young age have drawn comparisons with Alex Pato, and Milan were at one time interested in him. But Udinese saw him as a player who could take the role Alexis Sanchez did in his final year. They let him develop at Lecce where he scored seven goals, assisting in eight more last season and brought him back this season to be paired with Di Natale. Muriel is good with both feet and has a mean long distance shot as well. He just might be the next jewel in Udinese’ crown.

Expectation: To finish in the top three. Unlike last year, Udinese would most probably qualify for the Champions League proper, having drawn Braga of Portugal in the qualification match. Fighting on three fronts would then make it difficult for the team to attain the kind of performance required to make the top three in Serie A – like how Napoli found out last season.

Prediction: Finish in the Europa League spots