For years now Italy has been perceived to be a footballing nation in decline. A national team that vastly underperformed in the tournaments of 2008 and 2010, and with a league that is barely mentioned in the same breath as the “top two” leagues of England and Spain anymore.
Yet it’s time for people to take another look at Serie A, to regular fans I may be preaching to the choir, but to those who still remain sceptical – it’s the place to be entertained once more.
Rising clubs under clever management and the old romantics returning to a force have made this season’s Serie A more open than it has been since the Calciopoli scandal of 2006.
There’s plenty going on everywhere you look in Italian football right now. Juventus have been rejuvenated by their brand new stadium, Udinese’s excellent business model seems to becoming to the foray, Napoli’s counter-attacking football has them fighting at the top once more, Roma are trying to be Barcelona and the Milan clubs are struggling.
Last year’s Scudetto winners were AC Milan and it marked the first season since Calciopoli that Internazionale hadn’t won the league. It also highlights the continued process of the Serie A clubs evening out in ability once more, post-Calciopoli saw talent flocking away from AC Milan and Juventus and either going to greatly enforce Inter or reducing the overall quality of the league by moving abroad.
Juventus in particular deserve a mention; the Turin club have been in a constant phase of development since their demotion to Serie B post-Calciopoli. The new Juventus Stadium (as it will be known until a sponsor is found) certainly isn’t the reason for the club’s improvement so far this season but it’s recent timeline mirror’s the clubs fortunes well.
The stadium has had to be renovated much like the team, and much like Italian football in general, it has had to sacrifice capacity and attendance for the sake of intimacy and a new, improved atmosphere.
Of course a stadium does not make a good team and the Juventus squad has improved. The signings of Chilean midfield general Arturo Vidal, pacey winger Eljero Elia and the supremely classy Andrea Pirlo have arguably made this side the best Juventus team since before the scandal.
A first look at Andrea Pirlo in the Juventus kit and you can be forgiven for being confused at first. Seeing Pirlo outside of a Milan shirt of the Azzurri blue and you could well imagine that this is the Bizarro World Pirlo. Watch him play and you’ll soon realise that even at 32, Andre Pirlo is one the best midfielders in the world to watch play. His elegance with the ball of the feet is something that will never deteriorate and he has been the centre of this new Juventus team. Milan may look on and wonder if letting the fantastically-haired-one go out on a free was the right thing to do – even if he didn’t’ fit in to Massimiliano Allegri’s style of play.
Then there’s AS Roma, a team also starting an entirely new era. The summer take over of the club by Thomas R. DiBenedetto has seen Roma become the latest club to try and imitate Barcelona’s style of play and management. Indeed, the Giallorossi brought in former Barcelona player and Barcelona B manager, Luis Enrique, to oversee the ambitious transition.
Roma have certainly not been afraid to throw a bit of money around to help them to try and emulate Barcelona. Twelve new faces arrive into the team including the likes of Bojan Krkić, who certainly knows the Barcelona way, Fernando Gago on loan from Real Madrid, Miralem Pjanić, Maarten Stekelenburg, Simon Kjær (on loan from Wolfsburg), Pablo Osvaldo, and Erik Lamela just to name a few.
Success for “Roma-lona” has not been instantaneous for Luis Enrique’s men. ŠK Slovan Bratislava knocked Roma out of the Europa League play-offs 2-1 on aggregate and the Roman team have won just two of their first five Serie A games – and the next game sees them as the away team against city-rivals Lazio. A defeat there could abort the Tiki-Taka-ing of the club prematurely.
Meanwhile special praise must be reserved for Udinese. The Udine club has paid massive dividends for the amount of time and money invested in its scouting network. Udinese have brought low from South America, Africa and smaller European states and managed to sell them on for massive profits. Keeping the club running and being able to invest more in further acquisitions.
Plucking stars like Alexis Sánchez (now of Barcelona – landing his old club a massive €26,000,000 in the process), Mauricio Isla, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, and Kwadwo Asamoah is a testament to the way Udinese have slowly built themselves up from the yo-yo club of the early 90’s, to a mid table team, and until more recently a team competing in regularly in Europe and aiming for the Champions League.
Francesco Guidolin’s team though still owe a massive debut to their captain, Antonio Di Natale. The 33-year old is still certainly aging well, last season he beat his season record of 29 goals with a brilliant 30 goals – and he only set the 29 goal record the last before. Di Natale is the old head that guides a young and exciting attacking team – and certainly a club with a bright future.
Moving to the opposite end of the country, it’s hard for any neutral football fan not to have some sort of affinity with a club like Napoli. The Azzurri have been the leading fighters for the South of Italy in Serie A since they returned to the top flight after finishing runners up to Juventus in the Serie B season of 2006-2007.
The current Napoli, which under the leadership of Walter Mazzarri has become famous for it’s quick counter attacking football is another club on the up. Napoli’s current exiting dynamic football going forward is epitomised in their Uruguayan striker, Edinson Cavani. Cavani has been a much-converted talent since his days at Palermo and his move to Naples seems like a perfect match. In his first season he bagged 33 goals in 47 appearances and is currently 6 in 6 for this new campaign – not to mention wowing fans by his penchant for the spectacular.
Napoli are most importantly to any fan of football not far from something exciting happening. Last season’s 4-3 win at home to Lazio was perhaps the best game of football in top-flight football – a Cavani hatrick completing a superb comeback for Napoli. Already they have impressed this year, they played well in their 1-1 draw with Manchester City early on in the season and since then beat AC Milan at home and Internazionale away – comfortably. For Napoli, this is their best chance at winning a scudetto since the days of Diego Maradona.
On to the city of Milan. The two footballing giants the share the superb Stadio Giuseppe Meazza or the San Siro seem to be on the wane and their monopoly potentially falling away from them.
First, to Internazionale: a team that has declined surprisingly quickly after the departure of treble-winning manager José Mourinho to Real Madrid. Since then Rafael Benitez has been fired, Leonardo left, and Gian Piero Gasperini lasted barely 3 months in charge. Now it is up to Claudio Ranieri, a man who helped turn Roma from relegation candidates to a credible side again, to once again demonstrate how he can restore the order for Massimo Moratti.
Ranieri’s new men sit just 17th in the league currently and yet arguably have the best squad in the league. Inter managed to keep hold of Wesley Sneidjer and have added Diego Forlán, Jonathan, Ricky Álvarez, Andrea Poli and promising youngster Joel Obi to the side.
Over in the red and black side of Milan last year’s champions are only 2 places above their city neighbours. Massimiliano Allegri’s side have only managed to win one Serie A game so far having lost to both Napoli and Juventus as well. It marks what looks to be a difficult second season for the young manager.
The main stays at AC Milan have always been the butt about the jokes for their old ages and for the most part this is a team in their prime years. Thiago Silva, Alberto Aquilani, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Philippe Mexès, Robinho and Antonio Cassano are all in the 27-30 window that can be considered a player’s peak – when the experience and the athleticism are together as high as they can go until the legs fade away.
It’s something that finally seems to be affecting 35-year old Alessandro Nesta – and it seems this will be his last ever year. Nesta, over the past decade, has arguably been consistently the world’s best defender. If there’s one reason to watch Serie A this season is to finally see a true great like Nesta bringing his medal-filled career to an end – perhaps with yet another title under his belt.
It’s going to be tough for the Milan clubs to catch up once again and should they fail to do so it will be the first non-Milanese scudetto since the last time Juventus “legitimately” won the league in 2002/2003.
Sure this is season’s Serie A is not been graced by greats like Marco van Basten, Zinedine Zidane or Gabriel Batistuta but it has the potential to be the most memorable Italian league season in years.
Twitter – @filippoinzaghi