The race for the Scudetto has been a one sides affair for the last four seasons and while there are plenty of reasons to expect a more competitive title fight this time around Juventus are still the standout choices for a fourth straight championship.
The Old Lady are facing a brave new world without Antonio Conte, the man who has been an integral part of the revival that has taken them from the doldrums to Kings of Italy, but there has been an overreaction to summer transfer markets and the departure of the now Azzuri coach and they have the makings of a strong bet at Coral’s 13/10.
Let’s talk about Conte. His achievements were monumental, the unheralded 45 year old arrived on 22 May to little fanfare, having been found guilty of failure to report attempted match-fixing during his time as manager of Siena by ex-Siena player Filippo Carobbio, connected with the betting scandal of 2011-12. Almost one year later, the club won its 30th Scudetto and one week later finished the league season unbeaten, the first club to do so since Serie A extended to 20 teams. The next year they improved statically, winning more games, accumulating more points, and scoring more goals, and then last season they broke the 100 point barrier and had a 100% home record.
Conte’s departure is an unknown for them to deal with but many have been too suspicious of his replacement Massimo Allegri. The former Milan coach left with the club in disarray – something that has not changed – but his four years at Milan saw finishing positions of first, second and third before the club’s continuing bad management proved to be too much for him to handle and he departed. It’s worth remembering that once upon a time he had the likes of Zlatlan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva to work with, and moving to arguably the most stable club in Italy he should have the perfect base to work from.
Carlos Tevez has taken to Italian football like a duck to water, scoring 19 league goals while his partner in crime Fernando Llorente, having discovered the form that he carried for Athletic Bilbao, and at the other end of the pitch the defence of Boncucci, Barzagil, and Chilleni – covering the evergreen Buffon in goal – let in an astonishing 23 goals last year. The midfield is one of the most powerful in Europe, with Arturo Vidal having resisted all offers and looking set to stay, Andrea Pirlo still capable of controlling games from start to finish, Claudio Marchisio an absolute fixture and Paul Pogba’’s reputation only enhanced after the World Cup. Flying Ghanaian Kwadwho Asamoah adds pace and quality delivery along with his opposite number Stefan Lichensteiner. Transfer business has been minimal, but the addition of Alvaro Morata looks to be a very smart long term capture once he regains fitness.
It remains to be seen how different the side is for the loss of Conte; Their high intensity all action style of play has simply overwhelmed Serie A for the last four years and Allegri’s prime duty is to turn the club into the European force they should be, but Juventus won 33 games last season, lost just twice, scored 80 goals, finished a staggering 18 points clear of Roma, with a further 11 back to Napoli in third, and are a best of 13/10 to retain their title despite having suffered no major transfer departures.
Rudi Garcia’s transformation of Roma was huge achievement and they deserve the utmost respect coming into this campaign but a summer of impressive dealings and much hope for the future has led to a lot of hype and the question now has to be asked whether they are entirely deserving of a best price of 5/2.
Rejuvenated for their new management and a progressive chance from the dugout, Roma blazed a trail last season, winning their first 10 games on the bounce before a run of 5 draws in 6 games and a 3-0 defeat to Juventus created a gap that became too big to overhaul, but they were a class clear of the rest. The 85 points that they finished with would have been enough to win 4 of the previous 5 Scudettos and despite having an amazing campaign there is a genuine feeling that better could be yet to come.
With Rudi Garcia having just his second season at the club that is understandable and their transfer dealings have been very smart as they look to take another step forward. Ashley Cole looks to be a bargain on a free (having the added bonus of missing the World Cup) and brings a wealth of experience and defensive and offensive quality, and while Davide Astore came with much less fanfare he quietly adds plenty of solidity to the rearguard, and Urby Emmauson’s arrival also means that there is likely to be flexibility in terms of Garcia’s fullback choices. The capture of highly rated Kostas Manoalas from Olympiakos is also an important move for reasons discussed later and one of their most important singings.
A midfield that was already their key asset last year thanks to the brilliance of Miralem Pjanic, Alessandro Florenzi, Daniele De Rossi and Kevin Strootman until his unfortunate injury, has already been boosted by the arrival of Verona’s impressive powerhouse Juan Itrube, – an important singing for Roma who have pinched him from under the noses of champions Juventus – who will add more pace and power out wide and provide a foil should Gervinihio not build on a fantastic season back under the wing of his favourite boss – 9 goals and 11 assists making him one of the most clinical players in the league last year. Club legend Francesco Totti looks to have been phased out well with Matia Destro taking the reigns in attack and the team does look to be genuinely upgraded. However last year they had the benefit of no European competition – a benefit that cannot be overstated with both Juventus and Napoli deeply involved – and a very tough Champions League group this year is sure to put pressure on them and with CSKA Moscow as fourth seed a prolonged Europa League campaign is a possibility. Secondly, they also had the considerable presence of Mehidi Benatia having one of the best seasons that any defenders in Europe had and while they have gotten a air fee and used it well for him, his absence is a blow which is hard to soften given his outstanding quality and it remains to be seen whether the new singings provide an adequate buffer.
They appeal as a much better bet without the Champions at a shorter 11/8 with much less risk, with the Scudetto a realistic target but one that demands great improvements.
Under the steady hand of Aurelio De Laurentis Napoli followed up their second with a solid third and a trophy last season and while they should once again go well their squad remains the same while Roma have once again pushed on. They boast the most talented frontline in Serie A with Jose Callejon (who notched 11 assists) and Dries Mertens having pulled defences apart last year while Marek Hamsik’sf irresistible forward raids all helped Gonzalo Higuain to a 17 goal tally, but defending – 39 goals conceded to the 48 combined of the top 2 – was their achilles heel last year and rejections from approaches for Javier Mascherano, Cristoph Kramer, Mario Suarez and Maxime Gonalons are a blow and while they may have struck gold with 23-year-old centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly, defending of the kind that cost them their place in the Champions League with a catastrophic second half showing against Bilbao is likely to prevent any title ambitions although they should be well upto keeping their place in the Champions League and would be a solid bet at 5/6 with Betfair to do so.
Fiorentina are another team with a deeply impressive forward line and Vincenzo Montella’s side were a feast to watch last year but long term injuries to Guisesspe Rossi and Mario Gomez robbed them of any hope of a serious challenge and despite the impressive capture of Marko Marin – which is a bonus on top of keeping Juan Cudrado, who built upon his fantastic season with a great World Cup for Colombia – they are terribly reliant upon those two playing the majority of the season. If they do then they are capable of launching a challenge but Rossi has played just 22 league games since arriving – and only 31 in league football since the 2010/11 season – and he has already had knee troubled in pre season that have forced him to miss the first game tomorrow. Gomez is capable of filling in for him, but the strength of his knee throughought the season is crucial. In the likes of Borja Valero – who stepped into the void left by the two so well last season – and compatriot Joaquin to name another of their midfield talent – there is the quality to win top games – nobody else put 4 past Juventus – but it’s a big chance to take on their two forwards and strength in depth is an issue.
Inter Milan have fallen a long way since landing the treble but after some very poor manager choices the takeover of Erick Thoir looks to have got the club moving in the right direction and steady changes to Walter Mazaari’s squad bodes well. The established star is Mateo Kovacic even at his young age, and his midfield creativity should see Inter ticking but ahead of him Rodrigo Palacio is a surefire finisher who will find the net plenty of times – he should have no issues matching his 17 goals from last season – and there is now more strength in depth with Pablo Osvaldo having arrived from Southampton. With the tremendously exciting Mauro Icardi also set to play a fuller part above, Inter won’t lack for firepower with the dependable Hernanes also present.
The real progress however, could be made in defence with the singing of Nemajia Vidic from Manchester United a real coup even if he is in his latter years and it’s to be hoped that he can make an effective combination with Andrea Ranocchia, although Juan Jesus provides competitive competition. Yann Mvilla’s arrival in midfield is exciting, with the French international capable providing an effective defensive base, while Gary Medel brings tenacity to the middle of the park to protect a rear-guard infront of the fine Samir Handanovic. Those notable defensive improvement should help mattes, but they are a team slowly rebuilding and they should be stronger in seasons to come.
The chaos at AC Milan keeps continuing with Clarence Seedorf’s sacking robbing Milan of much needed stability and the departure of Mario Balotelli also a big blow. Despite the chaos at the top, it is true that Milan have defied a falling budget to buy well yet again.
The arrival of Fernando Torres as a replacement does have potential – the 27 year old is by no means a busted flush despite some pretty dreadful years at Chelsea – although he must show that he is ready to recapture his best form quickly with Giampaolo Pazzini having disappointed last term.
Jeremy Menez looks a much better acquisition, with the 27-year-old set to bring pace, width and bullying power to the forward line, although the return of Stefan El Shaarawy after a long injury absence is sure to be the biggest possible boost to their backline with the winger capable of tearing apart the league on his best form.
The snip of Real Madrid’s Diego Lopez looks to be a serious coup with the Spaniard a standout performer for Madrid last year between the net and he should make a difference in an area that Milan have struggled in since Dida left, although just how in his prime Alex is remains to be seen and much rests on the shoulders of the fine young prospect Matia De Sciglio with Richardo Montlivo a long way away from a comeback.
The talent on paper is there, but weather it is cohesive remains to be seen and neighbours Inter make much more appeal in terms of a European place with the Nezzaauri moving in the right direction both on and off the pitch; Take the 8/11 with Paddy Power that they finish ahead of their rivals.
The last club with realistic ambitions of a big showing – according to the bookmakers – are Lazio, looking to start again after Vladimir Petkovic’s second season at the club was a massive disappointment with crippling away form – they had just one away with in the calendar year 2013 – and the sale of Hernanes in January to Inter proving to be a blow they couldn’t handle. New coach Stefano Pioli is short on top-level experience but to his credit he does have sharp tools to work with; Marco Parolo and Duasn Basta are two real assets and securing ownership of the much courted Antonio Candareva is as important a piece of business as they’ll do, with the signing of 22 year old Stefan De Vrij after an impressive World Cup a much need shoring up of the defence. Again, they have potential, but Miroslav Klose is past his best upfront and they need Federico Marchetti to show his imperious best. If they do, top 4 is not beyond them but the stability and improvement of other clubs is again something they lack and there’s a lot of ground to be made up.
Torino and Parma deserve a mention here, having finished ahead of the last two clubs, although Torino have lost Ciro Immobile – a huge departure – and while they have signed well, bringing in Fabio Quagliarella, Antonio Nocerino and Cristian Molinaro to compensate, they will have to improve for the expected improvement of the likes of Lazio and Milan and even without, they do not make great appeal for a top 4 finish, let alone a title tilt.
Parma, heartbreakingly denied a European place, have kept most of last season’s squad intact and can move forward without European distractions. Having finished ahead of Torino they make appeal to do the same once again this season but could find that the top 5 is once again beyond them.
10 pts Juventus (13/10 Juventus)
3 pts Roma w/o Juventus (11/8 general)
4 pts Inter to finish above AC Milan over the season (8/11 Paddy Power)