Commentary

Serie A Return: Everything Old is New Again

Serie A, the last of Europe’s big five leagues to open play this weekend, could offer up a few surprises this season, as many of its biggest clubs have overhauled their squads. While the likes of Lazio, last-season’s surprise third-place finisher, Fiorentina and Napoli have mostly bought new squad players, defending champ Juventus, which aims for a record-setting fifth consecutive Scudetto this season, UEFA Champions League-bound AS Roma, and one-time Serie A giants AC Milan and Inter Milan have seen significant first-team turnover this summer.

The Old Lady, in particular, will have a new look about her: gone are striker Carlos Tevez (Boca Juniors) and central midfielders Arturo Vidal (Bayern Munich) and Andrea Pirlo (New York City FC), replaced by Sami Khedira (Real Madrid), Paulo Dybala (Palermo), Mario Mandzukic (Atletico Madrid) and Simone Zaza (Sassuolo). While Khedira will be seen as a direct replacement for Vidal, Mandzukic, Zaza and to a lesser extent, Dybala, will be expected to makeup for the 20 goals-per-season that Tevez usually chipped in. Mandzukic will likely lead the front line, with Zaza, Dybala and Alvaro Morata competing to start alongside the Croatian.

There is no direct replacement for deep-lying playmaker Pirlo, which could mean that coach Massimiliano Allegri scraps that position, and indeed, the 3-5-2 formation former coach Antonio Conte favored, for good this season. Juve has fewer pure center midfielders than it did last season, and Khedira is already showing signs of the same injury problems that dogged his last two seasons at Real. If the German, who has been ruled out for a further six weeks, continues to struggle for fitness, this could be a particularly important season for youngster Stefano Sturaro, especially since Claudio Marchisio, Juve’s other stalwart center-midfielder, will miss the first three weeks of the season with a thigh injury.

Talisman Paul Pogba, Juve’s new No. 10, will be expected to boss the midfield with his impeccable vision and thrusting runs -- but he is also capable of covering a lot more ground than 36-year-old Pirlo did. Retaining Pogba for another season was a huge coup for the defending champ because the 22-year-old is one of the world’s best young midfielders. It will be interesting to see how he adapts to a system that will no doubt be built around him.

Defensively, Juve has brought in two new talented, attack-minded wing-backs in Alex Sandro (FC Porto) and Mauricio Isla (Udinese). These moves are the clearest indication yet that Allegri plans to play with four in the back this season. As usual, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci will martial the center.

Although Juve’s moves look very good on paper, as with any squad overhaul, success is not a given, which is why Juve shouldn’t necessarily be considered the outright favorite. The likes of AS Roma, AC Milan and Inter Milan have also considerably strengthened their squads with some interesting new additions.

To be sure, Roma, last season’s second-place finisher, has brought in quality in the form of striker Edin Dzeko (Manchester City), winger Mohamed Salah (Chelsea) and goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny (Arsenal). Dzeko in particular could be the target man that Roma fans have craved following the disappointing, injury-hit, three-year stint of Bologna-bound Mattia Destro.

When healthy, Roma’s midfield is excellent and can compete with the very best in the world. The addition of the crafty winger Salah should only serve to strengthen the Giallorossi.

However, the capital club’s biggest question mark will be in defense, where it has sold Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa (Lyon), Jose Holebas (Watford), and Alessio Romagnoli (AC Milan). Yanga-Mbiwa was a regular starter in the center for Roma while Romagnoli is also an up-and-coming young central defender. Replacing them this season will be 22-year-old German Antonio Rudiger (Stuttgart) and Brazilian Leandro Castan, who has made a remarkable recovery from brain cancer. These two will be fighting to line up alongside stalwart Kostas Manolas.

As yet, there has been no direct replacement for Holebas; in fact, it’s on the wings where Roma looks particularly thin, with Maicon (now 34) and Vasilis Torosidis the only two fullbacks on the current roster. With that in mind, both the right and left side need bolstering, and not much time remains.

Both Milan clubs have gone through some dark times since Juve’s re-emergence as Italy’s best team. This could really be the season when things turn around for them.

For AC Milan, which finished 10th last season, a new investor in Thai billionaire Bee Taechaubol has brought renewed optimism, as well as a raft of interesting signings to the San Siro, including Luiz Adriano (Shakhtar Donetsk), Carlos Bacca (Sevilla), Andrea Bertolacci (Genoa), and the aforementioned Romagnoli. Perhaps the days of the club investing only in loan deals and 30-somethings have come to an end.

In particular, Milan has struggled to find a top striker since the departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic way back in 2012, so the big question is whether Luiz Adriano and Bacca, who are both in their prime, can fill the goals-void. Elsewhere, Romagnoli will be expected to slot into the center-back position alongside Cristian Zapata, with Philippe Mexes providing cover and experience.

Inter, meanwhile, continues to rebuild under Roberto Mancini, in his second stint in charge of the club. Mateo Kovacic (Real Madrid) and Xherdan Shaqiri (Stoke City) will be viewed as the big departures, but the club has added some tremendous talent in Stevan Jovetic (Manchester City), Geoffrey Kondogbia (AS Monaco), Jeison Murillo (Granada), Miranda (Atletico Madrid) and Martin Montoya (Barcelona).

Adding the skillful Jovetic to a front-line containing Mauro Icardi and Jonathan Biabiany is a scary proposition for any team, but it’s in the center of midfield and at the back where Inter has really reformed itself. Miranda and Murillo at center-back could be a great pairing of experience and youth, while Kondogbia is one of Europe’s most promising young defensive midfielders.

While Serie A is obviously more than these four teams, Off The Post thinks Juve, Roma, Inter and Milan are a good bet to finish in places one through four this season. If Juve cruises to the Scudetto again it will be thanks to a masterstroke in the transfer market from Allegri, while the other three will be battling hard for the remaining UCL places.

 

 

 

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