No Joy in Europe..But Lets Start The Campaign

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. 

The last of the great European leagues start its season in hours. Yes Serie A is back. But not all is hunky dory.

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.

Milan

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Sampdoria

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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

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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.

Torino

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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

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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

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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.

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

Taking Stock – The Serie A Mid-Season Review

A seminal year for Serie A with corruption raising its head, European adventures and the return of a giant – Debopam Roy reviews the season so far in Italy

Prior to the start of the 2011-2012 Serie A season, Goalden Times had done a preview where we had looked at the prospects of each of the 20 participating teams and touched upon some of the most discussed issues of the league. With almost half the season gone (16 of the 38 rounds) and the teams in a richly deserved winter break, it is the perfect opportunity to look back at the past 5 months, and take stock.

 The European Coefficient

In our preview, we had discussed how the Italian teams needed to spruce up their act in the continental competitions. We had seen how Serie A had been overtaken by the Bundesliga after consistent performances in both the European competitions and had consigned Serie A to only three Champions League slots. The 2011-12 season is the final season of Serie A, hopefully for a short duration only, with 4 Champions League teams as next season onwards, that privilege would be taken over by Bundesliga. Indeed the total points earned in the half season too show Serie A to be off its rivals.

Country

07-08 coefficients earned

08-09 coefficients earned

09-10 coefficients earned

10-11 coefficients earned

11-12 coefficients earned

Total coefficients earned

Teams that earned it/Total teams in Europe

England

17.875

15.000

17.928

18.357

12.375

81.535

8/8

Spain

13.875

13.312

17.928

18.214

11.285

74.614

5/7

Germany

13.500

12.687

18.083

15.666

10.750

70.686

4/6

Italy

10.250

11.375

15.428

11.571

9.500

58.124

5/7

France

6.928

11.000

15.000

10.750

9.666

53.344

4/6

Table 1: Year wise European Country Coefficients

So we see that only five (Milan, Inter, Napoli, Udinese, Lazio) of the seven teams that were in Europe actually contributed. (Palermo & Roma were ousted in the first qualification match in Europa League). The net points earned for 2011-12 (9.5) is also well below the other 4 nations in the top 5. This is because either more teams earned the points (as in England’s case) or the teams that entered, finished top of their group (Spain) thus accumulating more points.

In several previous seasons, individual Serie A teams have performed brilliantly in Europe, even winning the Champions League but there has been a collective effort lacking in both the tournaments. It was thus heartening to see the 5 Italian teams that qualified for group level in both the tournaments, actually making the knockout rounds. This 100% record is unmatched across Europe.

Country

No. of Teams in Europe

No. of Teams in Group Stages of European Competition

No. of teams in knockout rounds of European Competitions

England

8

8

5

Spain

7

6

5

Germany

6

5

4

Italy

7

5

5

France

6

5

2

Table 2: Performance of Teams Entering European Competitions in 2011-12

So one can say it was only Serie A which had a 100% record of the teams that actually qualified for the group stages of the European competitions. This is a surprisingly welcome cumulative effort from the peninsular teams and they now have an opportunity to earn more coefficient points in the knockout rounds, which are much higher than the group stage. Another point worth noting is that of all the leagues, Serie A has the maximum teams (three) in the knockout rounds of the Champions League. It is a credible achievement and needs to be lauded. But as we saw in table 1, the gap between Serie A and Bundesliga is more than twice the gap between Serie A and French Ligue 1 (which is below Serie A). Hence such consistent cumulative performances have to be continued for some years as well as get more teams to earn points in the knockout rounds to make an impact.

The Calcioscomesse[1]

The season had started with a massive shock of the Calcioscomesse where police had charged and arrested 16 people including Lazio and Italy striker Giuseppe Signori but of the active players, the most high-profile capture was Atalanta captain Cristiano Doni. On 9th August, Cristiano Doni was sentenced to three years and six months ban from Italian football though he was released on bail. That effectively ended the career of this 38-year-old. Signori was also banned for five years from calcio. Doni was re-arrested in December and even spent five days in solitary confinement before being released on house arrest. In his interrogations, Doni accepted that he had influenced matches unjustly, though he was adamant in confirming that all his efforts were directed towards the improvement of Atalanta and never had he conspired against his team. Further questioning awaits Doni on 18th January when the Italian National Arbitration Court for Sport will quiz him in Rome. One can rest assured that there may be more skeletons waiting to come out of the closet, in this matter.

The Season So Far

In many ways this was a throwback to the past for the behemoth that is Juventus finally found its range under a former iconic player who was managing on the big stage for the first time – Antonio Conte. Conte had led two teams from Serie B to promotion but this was the first time he was appointed for a big Serie A team (his other Serie A experience was with Atalanta). Tempering the 4-2-4 that he used in most of his earlier teams, and with the need to include Andrea Pirlo in the midfield, Conte tried 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1 and managed to end the half-season as the only team unbeaten, not just in Italy but in all the big leagues of Europe. The strikers were not too prolific though, with the exception of Alessandro Matri, but Claudio Marchisio was having the season of his life, already scoring six goals from the midfield.

But their impressive showing was not enough to go to the top alone, as defending champions Milan themselves bounced back from a start of 5 points in 5 matches (the 5th of which was a 2-0 loss to Juventus) to go on an unbeaten streak of their own which included 29 points in 11 matches with 30 goals scored and 8 conceded and 7 clean sheets. Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored in six consecutive matches, tying the club record of Andrei Shevchenko and at the winter break, Milan were tied for the top spot with Juventus but ahead on goal difference. A welcome feature of the season was the goals that Milan midfielders managed: Kevin-Prince Boateng had a hat-trick in a memorable 4-3 comeback win away at Lecce while Antonio Nocerino is having his best season, scoring six goals including a hat-trick in a 4-1 win against Parma.

The challenge for the top two came from the unlikely source of Udinese, who had sold their most promising striker (Alexis Sanchez), their best midfielder (Gokhan Inler) and their best defender (Cristian Zapata) and still had ended with an almost 100% win record at home (only broken by the 0-0 Juventus managed on the last round of matches before the break). Lazio too had bought well in the summer and Miroslav Klose was a revelation scoring goals and leading the line.

All these 4 teams should provide the backdrop for the scudetto fight though Juventus have a definite advantage with no European distractions and a fit team. Milan has probably the best squad of them and Ibrahimovic who has not lost a league title in the last eight years, but Champions League foray might eat into their title challenge. Udinese are the surprise and the neutral’s favourite for scudetto. They too are in Europe though as are Lazio and with thinner squads than either Milan or Juventus, they might drop off from the top four.

The three big teams that struggled to establish a consistent set of performances were Napoli, Inter and Roma and each had their own reason. All of them should qualify for Europe, though it is to be seen whether Champions League or Europa League beckons them. The identity of the top seven teams as of now should remain same at the end of May; the only thing to note is whether any of them can challenge Milan, Juventus and Udinese for the title.

Napoli had qualified for the Champions League and making a good fist of that chance but the strain of fighting on multiple fronts was taking its toll on the team. Coach Walter Mazzarri tried rotating his team, something that the fans had long clamoured for, but even then they were inconsistent in the league. There were brilliant wins against both Milan giants, a 6-1 thumping of Genoa and a 3-3 tie with Juventus in a match they led 3-1 with 18 minutes to go. But they also lost to Catania, Parma and Chievo, and drew with Cagliari and Fiorentina among others. The names show a pattern – wins against the big guns but loss of focus against the lesser lights.

Roma had spent big on promising youth players like Eric Lamela, Miralem Pjanic, Bojan and Fabio Borini but with an inexperienced manager and too many new players playing to a new system would have inevitably required time to gel. Seventh spot at the winter break is the best that they could manage. But with the team gelling better with time, this team can actually improve.

Inter Milan had a horror start to the season where after 9 matches they were in the relegation zone with five losses (including losses to Novara, Palermo and Catania). The team had not scored in their home ground till the seventh match and had their manager Gian Piero Gasperini sacked after five matches. The old hand, Claudio Ranieri was brought in to stabilise the ship and there was improvement as Inter picked up 18 points in the next 7 matches. Considering only top three teams will qualify for the Champions League, there is still some way off for the nerazzurri to work.

The most interesting and surprising team has been Atalanta. Hit with a six point penalty due to the Calcioscomesse, they knuckled down to win key games and remained unbeaten at home throughout. But for the points penalty, they would have been in the sixth position. German Denis led the surge with 12 goals in 16 matches and the top scorer award at the winter break. Memorable performances also came from Maxi Moralez, the diminutive Argentine bought from Velez Sarsfield as he contributed 4 goals and 3 assists.

Each of Catania, Fiorentina and Cagliari had their moments but largely struggled to get out of the mid table ruts. Palermo, who had a rollicking start and had a 100% record at home (including an opening day win versus Inter) were totally derailed from the 13th round onward. In their last four matches they picked only two points scoring in only one of those matches.

Down the table, the three teams who risk relegation the most are Cesena, Lecce and Novara. Lecce were exceptionally poor managing only a single point from all of their home matches – a draw with Novara. They lie bottom with nine points. Novara, who returned after 55 years to Serie A managed a fine win against Inter but managed only one other win to have 12 points, a tally that was matched by Cesena. Both Cesena and Novara were also matched in that they both had the only two artificial pitches in Serie A. Along with these three, both Siena and Bologna too may get embroiled if they do not improve in the second half of the season. The relegation dogfight should be confined between these five teams.

Team

Matches

Wins

Draws

Loss

Goals For

Goals Conc

Points

Milan

16

10

4

2

35

16

34

Juventus

16

9

7

0

27

11

34

Udinese

16

9

5

2

20

9

32

Lazio

16

8

6

2

24

13

30

Inter

16

8

2

6

22

19

26

Napoli

16

6

6

4

29

18

24

Roma

16

7

3

6

21

19

24

Catania

16

5

7

4

20

23

22

Palermo

16

6

3

7

18

20

21

Genoa

16

6

3

7

19

24

21

Atalanta (-6pts)

16

6

8

2

23

19

20

Chievo

16

5

5

6

13

18

20

Parma

16

5

4

7

21

26

19

Fiorentina

16

4

6

6

15

15

18

Cagliari

16

4

6

6

12

17

18

Siena

16

3

6

7

14

16

15

Bologna

16

4

3

9

14

24

15

Novara

16

2

6

8

17

29

12

Cesena

16

3

3

10

8

20

12

Lecce

16

2

3

11

17

33

9

●●●  

Top Goalscorers

German Denis (Atalanta): 12 goals

Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Milan): 11 goals

Antonio di Natale (Udinese): 10 goals

Edinson Cavani (Napoli), Mirosalv Klose (Lazio): 9 goals

Stevan Jovetic (Fiorentina), Sebastian Giovinco (Parma), Pablo Osvaldo (Roma): 7 goals

●●●


[1] Illegal betting on football