Given how imperious Juventus have been in Serie A over the past three seasons Antonio Conte’s departure to take charge of Gli Azzurri has whetted the appetite of his former club’s rivals.
The teams from Turin and Milan are beginning their latest campaign as title candidates once more but will have to share this status with a very ambitious Roma side this time around.
Ahead of the 113th edition of the Italian championship, FIFA.com asks five key questions about the new season.
1 – Can the southern clubs put an end to Milan and Turin’s domination?
It has been 13 years since a club from the south of Italy won the Scudetto. That statistic includes Rome as part of the South even though the capital is generally considered to be on the fringes of the Mezzogiorno. Since a nationwide league was first staged in the 1929/1930 season, southern clubs have only won the title on eight occasions. Apart from the capital city’s two clubs, AS Roma (who won in 1942, 1983 and 2001) and Lazio (1974 and 2000), only Napoli (1987 and 1990), led by Diego Maradona, and Luigi Riva’s Cagliari (1970) have been crowned Italian champions. Juventus alone have amassed nearly four times as many league trophies as all the southern clubs put together.
Roma and Napoli are likely to be among the South’s leading teams again this season. The runners-up from the previous campaign have made judicious additions to their ranks with the aim of mounting one final attempt to bring club legend Francesco Totti a second championship winners’ medal. For their part, Napoli have established themselves among the country’s best teams since the arrival of their president Aurelio de Laurentiis in 2004. Spanish coach Rafael Benitez has imported several of his fellow countrymen from Real Madrid in order to breathe new life into a city whose heart stopped beating the day Maradona left.
To break the current stranglehold, any challengers will have to keep Italy’s three biggest teams from the North in check. Inter Milan are back on form, AC Milan are relying on a new coach who knows the club like the back of his hand, and Juventus recently appointed Massimiliano Allegri as Antonio Conte’s successor.
2 – How have Cagliari caused the winds of change to whistle through Serie A?
Cagliari’s 37-year-old president, businessman Tommaso Giulini, has adopted a new strategy this season. He wants to rely predominantly on young home-grown players who have a promising future ahead of them but have not yet featured in Serie A. To help implement this plan, the club has appointed Czech coach Zdenek Zeman, who is renowned for his skill as a trainer and has lived and worked in Italy since 1981.
As a result, an impressive number of young players have made the switch to Cagliari this summer, almost all of whom have already represented Italy at youth level but have yet to be handed their chance with the first team. Zeman has sought out players such as Simone Colombi. The 23-year-old goalkeeper was previously contracted to Atalanta but six loan spells since 2009 stalled his development, despite him having won 15 caps for Italy’s U-19s between 2008 and 2011. It was a similar story for 22-year-old Simone Benedetti, a solid and imposing centre-half, and 21-year-old midfielder and fellow Inter Milan midfield import Lorenzo Crisetig. Samuele Longo, 22, has arrived from Inter Milan along with 18-year-old Ghanaian Godfred Donsah from Palermo, striker Alessandro Capello from Bologna and Brazilian Caio Rangel Da Silva, both also just 18. This flurry of summer activity has encouraged 35-year-old captain Daniele Conti to prolong his career for another season to act as an extension to Zeman on the pitch. The veteran Rossoblu makes no secret of his enthusiasm for the project and is looking forward to the “unique experience.”
3 – Are there any major stars left in Serie A after Mario Balotelli’s departure?
Stars are becoming increasingly scarce in Serie A. There is no doubt that Mario Balotelli was the last example of the kind of player who can create a storm with just one incredible moment on the pitch or other escapades off it. The 24-year-old opted for a return to England, this time for Liverpool, and admitted: “It was a mistake to come back to Italy.” When it comes to players best known for their exemplary performances, Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo and Francesco Totti are the last giants from a golden era, while the list of foreign stars is headed by well-known names such as Gonzalo Higuain (Napoli), Carlos Tevez (Juventus), Miroslav Klose (Lazio), Miralem Pjanic (Roma) and Mario Gomez (Fiorentina).
Despite the relative dearth of established headliners, an ever more impressive new generation is now stepping into the spotlight, led by talented youngsters such as France’s Paul Pogba at Juve, 21-year-old Argentinian Mauro Icardi at Inter, 21-year-old Juan Manuel Iturbe – dubbed the Paraguayan Messi – or Italy’s Stephan El Shaarawy, who has the skills to make his way back to the top after an extremely challenging year.
4 – What style of play will Pippo Inzaghi impose at AC Milan?
Just a few months ago, Clarence Seedorf ended his playing career only to jump straight into the role of head coach at AC Milan midway through the season. Unfortunately, he was barely given time to put his ideas into practice. Although club officials have opted to appoint another rookie to rejuvenate a frustrated team that finished in mid-table obscurity last season, Filippo Inzaghi has at least had the chance to prepare for the role. He coached Milan’s U-18 side after retiring from professional football in 2012 before taking the reins of the reserves the following year.
Now it is time for him to make the step up to the first team. “I’m realistic,” Inzaghi said. “After finishing eighth last time, we mustn’t think we can suddenly win everything, but I can assure you that this team will give 100 per cent on the pitch. The Tifosi will see a team with fighting spirit. I’m not setting any limits, but I really believe in the virtues of hard work and organisation,” he continued. “I want to see a determined team who model themselves on Atletico Madrid. My first aim will be to bring the fans back to the stadium and get them to identify with their team.” Nothing was said of Mario Balotelli’s departure; instead, Super Pippo is focusing on team spirit. The results will follow.
5 – Who coaches the teams in Serie A?
The ‘brotherhood’ of Italian coaches is a very exclusive circle in which foreign counterparts tend to struggle. Over the past 20 years, only two non-Italians have managed to win the Scudetto: Swede Sven-Goran Eriksson with Lazio in 2000 and Portugal’s Jose Mourinho with Inter Milan in 2009 and 2010.
Serie A boasts just four overseas coaches this season, two of whom – Czech Zdenek Zeman at Cagliari and Sampdoria’s Sinisa Mihajlovic from Serbia – have spent the vast majority of their playing and coaching careers in Italy. On the other hand there are the two revelations of the previous campaign: Spaniard Rafael Benitez, in charge at Napoli, and Frenchman Rudi Garcia at Roma. Both men lead ambitious teams keen to fight for the title again this year.
Of the 16 Italian coaches in the league, 14 are former players, of whom four represented their country. Parma’s Roberto Donadoni won 63 international caps while Vincenzo Montella of Fiorentina made 20 appearances for Italy. Eusebio di Francesco at Sassuolo Calcio wore the Azzurri shirt on 12 occasions and Serie A’s latest up-and-coming coach Filippo Inzaghi played for his country 57 times, scoring 25 goals along the way.