2011/12 Serie A Preview
Another European league, another dose of strike action. It's become an almost yearly ritual, but much like their Iberian neighbours, it looks like this strike will actually affect the start of the Italian football season. A deep-rooted disagreement between the league and the Italian Players' Union (AIC) is the catalyst for this strike, and doesn't look like being resolved any time soon.
There are two main sticking points that neither side can seem to agree on: firstly, clubs forcing players to move in the last year of their contracts, and thus, making want away players train away from the first team. (See Goran Pandev's travails at Lazio two seasons ago.) And secondly, clubs wanting their highest earners to pay a new solidarity tax in a time of financial prudence.
AIC President, Damiano Tomassi has said: "We have stated it in previous days and we reiterate it again today: without the signature of the collective contract the players will not go out on the pitch on Saturday and Sunday. Once the contract is signed, the players will be ready to play. Now we will await (FIGC president Giancarlo) Abete's decision." The problem is, Abete doesn't seem to want to make a decision. The waiting continues, but don't hold your breath on football being played this weekend.
Clubs may be waxing lyrical over financial prudence to current players, but it seems this summer they've forgotten their austerity measures when it comes to enticing new ones. Leverkusen's Arturo Vidal has moved to Juventus for €11m, Napoli have had to part with €15m for Gokhan Inler and Roma, under their new American owners, have so far spent over €75m.
The Milan-centric dominance of the past decade still hasn't waned, but it certainly looked like it was on the rocks last season. Udinese were looking like the most refreshing team in Europe; Inler, Alexis Sanchez, Kwadwo Asamoah and Tony of Christmas were a revelation. Napoli, under the talismanic Edison Cavani, challenged all the way up till April. And Lazio ended the season looking like something of their former selves; Hernanes finally living up to the expectations he'd set himself at Sao Paulo.
Of course, the two superstars of last season have gone: Javier Pastore for a French record €45m to PSG and Alexis Sanchez to Barcelona, but things are still looking bright in the peninsula. The dull, slow, low-scoring cliches of Italian football are slowly being shaken off, and this season looks like being one of the most exciting in years. Just don't mention the UEFA co-efficent.
Atalanta: After a brief season's absence, Atalnata are back. The club from Bergamo though have had a truly nightmare summer. Caught up in the betting scandal that has engulfed Italy over the past couple of months, they go into the season with -6 points and their legendary midfielder Christian Doni banned for life. Fans though have come out in force, snapping up 18,000 season tickets already. And coach Stefano Colantuono has strengthened significantly, bringing in Argentinean striker Maximiliano Moralez from Velez Sarsfield and defender Andrea Masiello from Bari. Will fight relegation all season, but could surprise a few people.
Do say: "Doni will be missed, if only for his off-field presence. But even with all the off-field problems, promising 19-year-old striker Manolo Gabbadini will brighten the Nerazzuri's hopes."
Don't say: "I fancy a flutter."
Bologna F.C 1909: Marco Di Vaio has stayed. That's pretty much all you need to know as to how well Bologna will do this season. Di Vaio is Bologna, scoring 19 of their 35 goals last season, and going unpaid for much of the year. He will be joined upfront by new signings Alessandro Diamanti, formerly of West Ham and one-time under-21 starlet Roberto Acquafresca. 17 new players have been brought to the Stadio Renato Dell'Ara in all, with 14 going in the opposite direction. To says it's a squad overhaul is an understatement, but expect much the same results as last time.
Do say: "Acquafresca really has something to prove after not making much of a mark at Inter Milan. His goal-record for the Azzurini shows he has real class though."
Don't say: "A mid-table finish and a good cup run would be the ideal scenario for them."
Cagliari Calcio: Both of last season's top-goalscorers have gone: Matri to Juventus and on-loan Acquafresca to Bologna, and that could prove costly to the Rossiblu. No one of considerable note has come in to fill that goalscoring void, with Andrea Cossu the only player likely to threaten. In goal, Federico Marchetti has left for Lazio, and midfield dynamo Andrea Lazzari has gone to Fiorentina. The squad looks threadbare and will struggle. New head coach, Massimo Ficcadenti certainly has a job on his hands.
Do say: "Chairman Massimo Cellino should never have sacked Roberto Donadoni in my opinion."
Don't say: "David Suazo." He's the main reason for Donadoni's sacking.
Catania Calcio: Diego Simeone has been replaced by Vincenzo Montella as manager and will look to get rid of most of the 14! Yes 14, Argentinians Simeone brought to the club last season. One player who has left though is defender Matias Silvestre. Not only was he the side's most reliable defender, he was also their second top-goalscorer and will inevitably be a huge loss. And just to add salt into already ravishing wounds, he's moved to their biggest rivals, Palermo. Catania have finished the last three seasons in 13th place, expect a similar position this time around.
Do say: "In 10 years, Catania have gone through an astonishing 21 coaches. Including, weirdly, John Toshack for an eight month period in 2002."
Don't say: "I'm sure Montella will be given all the time in the world to achieve his goals."
Also don't say: "I fancy Catania to finish in any position other than 13th."
AC Cesena: Last season's darlings. Many expected their first season back in the top-flight to be a brief stint, but four games in they were sitting top of the table with wins against AC Milan and Bari already under their belts. That level of competitiveness, unfortunately, couldn't be maintained, but a fantastic last two months of the season saw them avoid relegation by the skin of their teeth. The Seahorses, then, really made a name for themselves last year, and will hope this season continues in the same vein. They may have lost Stephen Appiah and Davide Santon, but Marco Parolo and Emanuele Giaccherini: two of last year's star players, are still there. Add to that the introductions of Andrea Candreva from Udinese and former Chelsea striker Adrian Mutu, and things are looking up. New manager Marco Giampaolo knows he's in a job, but if the Stadio Dino Manuzzi continues to be the fortress it was last season, there's no reason they can't stay up.
Do say: "This is a big season for Adrian Mutu. He needs to put that snorting-cocaine-off-a-prostitute-thing behind him and show the same class he produced for the first six months at Chelsea."
Don't say: "The Seahorses? Dear me."
Chievo Verona: The club with the best nickname in world football will be hoping they can put a stop to what is becoming an almost inevitability: a great start to the season, followed by a malaise post-Christmas. Boukary Drame has been drafted in from Sochaux to help stabilise one of last season's leakiest defences, and Domenico Franco has moved for free from Salernitana. A respectable mid-table is realistically all they can hope for.
Do say: "That nickname? The Flying Donkeys!"
Don't say: Just don't mention cake.
ACF Fiorentina: It's been an unsettling summer in Florence. One by one, club stalwarts have slowly left for pastures new. Sebastian Frey, Adrian Mutu, Mario Santana, Marco Donadel and Gianluca Commotto have all moved on, with very little coming back the other way. Andrea Lazzari has been brought in from Cagliari and Gianni Munari will add some class from Palermo, but none of these new signings have Florentines rushing to buy season tickets. Perhaps the main plus for La Viola is the return of Stevan Jovetic, the 20-year-old Montenegran who tore Liverpool a new one in the Champions League two years ago. His knee injury at the start of last season completely decimated his and Fiorentina's campaign last time out, so with him back, things are looking up. Manager Sinisa Mijhalovic still hasn't endeared himself to fans at the Artemio Franchi and a good start to this campaign will be vital.
Do say: "Khouma Babacar is slowly starting to look like the real deal up front. At only 18 he's certainly got time on his side, but his pace and sheer presence means he could be a handful for plenty of sides this year."
Don't say: "Mijhalovic? He's the one who's good mates with Paddy Vieira, right?"
Genoa C.F.C: Italy's English club finished a disappointing tenth last time out. Major investment in the summer heralded a false dawn, as big-name players like Rafinha, Eduardo and Hernan Crespo just didn't perform, at all. This season, a mass migration of players leaves new coach Alberto Malesani at the crossraods of a dilemma: there will be huge expectation to contend with, but a glut of new players to incorporate. Chiefly amongst those new signings are Sebastian Frey from Fiorentina, Milan's next-young-thing Alexander Merkel and Cesare Bovo on-loan from Palermo. Like almost all of these 'projects', it could go either way: Europa League qualification, or teetering on the bring of relegation.
Do say: "Genoa are Italy's oldest professional club, and were first founded by Englishman James Richardson Spensley. The C.F.C at the end of their name stands for Cricket and Football Club."
Don't say: "Well at least there'll be a Genoa Derby to look forward to this season."
Inter Milan: It was supposed to be a summer of quiet reflection for the Nerazzuri, a few months to re-group and begin to wrestle back the Scudetto from their city neighbours. Things haven't quite worked out that way though for new boss Gian Piero Gaperini. The constant rumours of whether Samuel Eto'o will be moving have finally been laid to rest; he's off to Russian side Anzhi. And the need to replace him is the most pressing matter facing the former Genoa coach. Whispers of a swoop for Diego Forlan have surfaced, but until things have been set in stone, fans of Inter will be extremly nervous of their teams fortunes for this coming campaign. It looks as if Sneijder will be staying another season as well, but will his head be elsewhere? Ricky Alvarez has signed from Velez Sarsfield, but other than that no other signings have been made. Those halcyon days of the treble are looking like a long and distant memory.
Do say: "It will be interesting to see if Gasperini uses his preferred 3-4-3 formation with this Inter side."
Don't say: "Can we have Mourinho back?"
Juventus: Italy's most successful club endured a torrid time last season under Luigi Delneri. An abismal Europa League campaign and inconsistency in Serie A meant the board had no other option but to get rid of Delneri, and replace him with former Juve captain Antonio Conte - he of the mid-nineties Champions League winning side. Since Conte's appointment it seems to have been one long party for Juve: Del Piero is signing for one more year, Andrea Pirlo and Mirko Vucininc have signed from AC and Roma respectively and the new stadium, which everyone has been hankering for for at least 10 years, has finally arrived. If Conte can get everyone firing like they should, a title challenge is certainly within their grasp.
Do say: "Milos Krasic was an utter revelation last season and will need to play out of his skin again this time around for Juve to challenge for the title."
Don't say: "I think that new away kit is fantastic."
S.S. Lazio: Rome's other club have had a busy summer, and for the first time in over a decade, fans of the Biancolesti seem genuinely excited about the prospect of an impending season. A final position of fifth last time may seem high, but when you consider Lazio were top at Christmas, it was a tad disappointing. To help move the club on that next step, coach Edy Reja has brought in Federico Marchetti in goal, Lorik Cana from Galatasaray to sure up the defence and a new strike partnership of Djibril Cisse and Miroslav Klose. Fernnando Muslera and Stephan Lichtsteiner will be missed, but a Champions League is certainly on the cards.
Do say: "Hernanes was solid last season but certainly didn't live up to the hype surrounding him. Now his first season is out of the way, he needs to take the bull by the horns and really become the linchpin of this Lazio side."
Don't say: "Have they got rid of that bloody eagle yet?"
U.S. Lecce: The perennial yo-yo club, Lecce finished 17th last season and only survived relegation on the last day. This year they have a new man in charge: former Pescara boss Eusebio di Francesco, and will look, again, to scrap for survival. Fringe players from the bigger clubs have been drafted in on-loan to share the load, namely: Rodeny Strasser from Milan and Julio Sergio, Roma's veteran goalkeeper, but I can't see it working this time. They need to stop performing miracles against the top teams, like they did last season (2-1 win against Milan; 2-0 win against Napoli) and start beating the teams around them. Unfortunately, that looks like a task too far.
Do say: "Di Francesco's Pescara played a fast-paced counter-attacking style last season, but to do the same with this Lecce side will be tough. He will need to be pragmatic to get the best out of this bunch."
Don't say: "Zdenek Zeman won't save them this time I'm afraid."
AC Milan: Last season's champions, and probably this season's champions aswell. Andrea Pirlo has gone after ten years loyal service, and has been replaced by Anfield hero Alberto Aquilani. Phillipe Mexes and Taye Taiwo have been brought in to add some verve to an ageing back line, but the reason for the Rossoneri's hope this season is the permanent capture of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Last year's top-goalscorer, and general figurehead for the side; Zibra has to play well for Milan to win the scudetto. He probably will.
Do say: "With Pirlo gone, Gattuso ageing and Kevin Prince-Boateng being rubbish, they probably need one more central midfield to challenge at home and abroad. Ricardo Montolivio would do nicely."
Don't say: "I could swear I saw a photo of Pato at one of Berlusconi's Bunga Bunga parties?"
S.S.C. Napoli: It seems Italy's most fervently supported team have finally stepped out of that Maradona-shaped shadow that was stalking them for 20 years. Not since the days of the little maestro have Neopolitans had so much to shout about. A third place finish last season, some of the most dramatic games of recent memory, and a new hero to drool over. Luckily for them, Edison Cavani has decided to stay despite admiring glances from Real Madrid. It was his 26 league goals last season that propelled them up the league, but help from Marek Hamsik and Ezquiel Lavezzi didn't go a miss. Both the aforementioned have decided to stick around for another season and try to compete on both fronts, home and abroad. Aswell as keeping all their key players, Walter Mazzarri has also added intelligently to the squad. Gokhan Inler comes in from Udinese and both Marco Donadel and Mario Santana join from Fiorentina. It will be tough on this novice squad combining the Champions League with a Scudetto challenge, but if anyone can do it, Napoli can.
Do say: "Christian Maggio is the absolute heartbeat of this side. With him alongside Inler in the centre of midfield, really anything is possible."
Don't say: "Won't it be nice seeing Maradona cheer on his old side at the San Paolo."
Novara Calcio: Welcomed back to the top-table for the first time in 55 years, the team from Piedmont looked like a champions-elect last season in Serie B. That was until April, when they had an end of season wobble and had to settle for a play-off spot. That mental fragility may come back to haunt them this season, and of all the newly-promoted teams, look least likely to stay up. Coach Attilo Tesser has seen the club go from Serie C to Serie A in two consecutive seasons, and that meteoric rise has been one of the great stories in Italian football. A new forward line of Jeda, Takayuki Morimoto and Ricardo Meggiorini will score goals, but it's at the other end where Novara will struggle. Relegation looms large, but it'll be fun whilst it lasts.
Do say: "Did you know? Novara's Stadio Silvio Piola is the only professional ground in Italy with an artificial pitch."
Don't say: "The last time Novara were in the top-flight, they ended the campaign with only 14 points."
U.S. Citta di Palermo: An entirely mixed campaign last time out saw them challenge for the title all the way until March, get knocked out of the Europa League at the group stage and come runners-up in their first ever Coppa Italia final. This time around, mad-cap chairman Maurizio Zamparini has installed ex-Chievo boss Stefano Piolo at the helm, with the vague hope of him repeating that wonderous work he's done at the Flying Donkeys. Obviously, the main news over the summer is the departure of Javier Pastore to PSG and by replacing him with Israeli international Eran Zahavi, don't expect much headway in the hunt for that Champions League spot.
Do say: "Long-haired lothario Federico Balzaretti is quickly becoming one of Europe's best full-backs."
Don't say: "So, Zamparini, where exactly has all that Pastore money gone?"
Parma F.C: A mid-table finish last year doesn't exactly tell I Gialloblu's whole story. Flirting with relegation right up until the last few weeks, the change of manager mid-term really did turn the campaign around for them: former Bologna tactican Franco Colomba coming in midway through March to save the day. Colomba's added front and back to try and avoid a repeat of last season. Jaime Valdes joins from Sporting Lisbon. Fabio Borini, fresh from his exploits at Norwich and Swansea also joins, as well as Football Manger favourite Fabiano Santcroce (he's the best centre-back in the world by 2016. Believe me.) Safe mid-table is what will become of Parma
Do say: "It's a shame Amauri has rejoined Juventus after last season's loan spell. He was instrumental in their rise back up the table, scoring nine goals in 11 games post-Christmas."
Don't say: "Playmaker Sebastian Giovinco is officially the world's smallest footballer, measuring in at 3' and a brick."
A.S Roma: It's been rather busy in the Eternal city this summer. Under new American ownership, Roma have transformed themselves into a money-spending monster, and are looking increasingly like championship contenders week-by-week. In come Bojan Krkic, Gabriel Heinze, Erik Lamela, Martin Stekeleburg and Loic Nego. But perhaps more importantly for I Giallorossi, Daniele De Rossi stays. Former Barcelona legend Luis Enrique has been brought in to add a touch of tiki-taka class to proceedings, and if he finds a settle XI that fire on all cylinders from the start, things could look interesting come May.
Do say: "It's been a tough couple of years for Roma: Spalletti stuttered, Ranieri failed to manage the egos properly and Montella was far too pally with the senior players. Perhaps an outside influence like Luis Enrique is exactly what they need?"
Don't say: Any awful American cliches. They won't take kindly to that in Rome Mr. Chairman.
A.C. Siena: All has been quiet in Tuscany so far this summer. Former manager Antonio Conte left for Juventus back in June, and new man Guiseppe Sannino was in charge within the week. It seems that's how they like to do things at Siena: quietly, properly and all in good time. Many of the experienced faces that took them up have stayed, but they've also added quality where it's been needed. Gaetano D'Agostino has arrived from Fiorentina and is really, the only big name in the entire squad. That said, who needs big names when you can shut out teams for 90 minutes? There no-nonsense style will keep them up this season.
Do say: "I've been to Siena. It's lovely. There's a shop in the town centre that sells retro Kappa tracksuit tops for a pittance. You should go."
Don't say: There ground, the Stadio Artemio Franchi holds 15,000? Who do they think they are? Wigan?"
Udinese Calcio: Easily the best footballing side in Italy last season, Udinese could probably lay claim to being the most exciting side in Europe as well. The way they demolished fellow Champions League-chasers Palermo in February was phenomenal (it finished 7-0, by the way.) But will they do it again this season? The answer: probably not. Losing Alexis Sanchez to Barcelona was a huge blow, but losing Gokhan Inler to Napoli was an even bigger one. He was the pendulum through which all Udinese's play swung last season, and not having him this year will be the most painful of blows. He's been replaced with Abdoulwhaid Sissoko, formerly of Troyes in France, and he will have to step up fairly quickly to get La Zebrette rolling again. Unfortunately, I think last season may have been a one-off.
Do say: "Manager Fransesco Guidolin is a huge Anglophile, saying that when he leaves Udinese he'd love to manage a fallen English giant, 'someone like Nottingham Forest or Southampton."
Don't say: "Midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah looks a lot like fellow midfielder Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, who looks a lot like defender Pablo Armero who looks a lot like midfielder Thierry Doubai."