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Midfield impresses in opening-day win

AS Roma Sep 1, 2014
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 Posted by Paolo Bandini
Aug 29, 2014

Serie A preview: Can Juventus win a fourth straight title?

The big question this season: can Juventus win a fourth straight Serie A title?

Last season, the standings made it look like no contest. Juventus finished 17 points clear of second-place Roma, becoming the first team ever to reach the century mark in Serie A. The Bianconeri won 33 out of 38 games -- including all 19 at home in Turin. They scored more goals, and conceded fewer, than anybody else in the division.

And yet, right up until the last month of the season, Juventus had faced some serious competition. Roma were brilliant in their first year under Rudi Garcia, flying out of the gates with 10 consecutive victories and subsequently embarking on another nine-game winning streak in the spring. With three matches to go, they were still only eight points behind. It was only then that they finally lost hope, collapsing to three meek defeats and allowing the Old Lady to pad out her lead.

By the end, Juventus' own manager found himself paying tribute to Garcia's team. "If we have broken all these records, then it is to the credit of this splendid Roma team," Antonio Conte said. "They gave us the right amount of fear, the right amount of respect."

Rafael Benitez and Napoli faded badly last season. With Serie A to focus on, can they mount a strong campaign?

That was more than could be said for Napoli, who showed in their first season under Rafael Benítez that they could beat anybody -- including Juventus -- on their day, but also that they were capable of slipping up against much lesser teams. Seven of the league's bottom eight sides succeeded in taking points from the Partenopei.

Were it not for another injury to Giuseppe Rossi, Fiorentina might even have caught Napoli in the race for third place. As it was, Benítez's side claimed Italy's final Champions League berth only to blow it by losing to Athletic Bilbao in a two-legged playoff.

Three big storylines for 2014-15

1. Can Allegri fill Conte's shoes?
Conte resigned from his position as Juventus manager in July, bringing down the curtain on a remarkable tenure. He won the Scudetto in all three seasons that he was in charge, re-establishing Juventus as the preeminent force in the Italian game. So great were his achievements, indeed, that even he did not feel capable of following them.

"After three years like this, it can happen that you have a season in which you don't win anything," Conte said in May, two months before taking the decision to stand down. "We are not ready for Europe, and I don't want to go from a hero to an idiot."

Repairing the relationship with Andrea Pirlo will determine a lot about how Allegri's time at Juventus goes.

And so, instead, the club has turned to Massimiliano Allegri. The former Milan manager had already contributed greatly to Juve's recent success, paving the way for Andrea Pirlo's move to Turin when he deemed the midfielder to be surplus to requirements at the San Siro three years ago.

Can he repair his relationship with that player? And will the rest of the group respond to his methods? On the one hand he finds himself in a strong position having just inherited the strongest squad in the league. But after the club's unprecedented successes last year, a more cynical observer might argue that the only way is down for Juventus this season.

2. Is Inzaghi the right man to rescue Milan?
Milan's supporters responded enthusiastically to the appointment of Pippo Inzaghi this summer, turning up in the thousands for his official unveiling at the club's Casa Milan headquarters. They remember fondly the 126 goals that he scored for their club as a player, none more so than the brace against Liverpool in the 2007 Champions League final as the Rossoneri exacted revenge for their defeat by the same opponents in Istanbul.

But any excitement about his prospects as a manager is tinged by awareness of the club's very obvious limitations. Milan finished eighth last season and have since allowed both of their top two goal scorers -- Mario Balotelli and Kaka -- to depart. So far their two biggest signings have been Jeremy Menez and Alex, both of whom arrived on free transfers after being discarded by Paris Saint-Germain.

Milan need a big season out of Jeremy Menez now that Mario Balotelli has moved to Liverpool.

Further additions are expected before the transfer window closes and Inzaghi is viewed as the perfect man to bring through fresh talent from the youth team, which he led to its first triumph in more than a decade at the prestigious Viareggio tournament earlier this year. But Inter's recent experiment with Andrea Stramaccioni should serve as a reminder that achieving success with the Primavera does not necessarily mean that a coach is ready to take up the reins at one of Italy's most prominent teams.

3. How many managers will Zamparini fire?
Palermo are back in the top flight and with them, their tempestuous owner, Maurizio Zamparini -- a man who has changed manager 26 times since taking over the club back in 2002. The club's current boss, Beppe Iachini, has already enjoyed a longer tenure than most, taking over in September of last year and steering the Sicilians to promotion from Serie B. But as the new season approaches, his position already looks under threat.

"Today I will see Beppe and we will spend a day together talking," growled Zamparini after watching his team lose 3-0 to Modena in the Coppa Italia last weekend. "We will discuss the things that I did not like about Saturday evening, and the things that need to happen between now and Sunday."

Marquee signings

1. Juan Iturbe, AS Roma: Even by Walter Sabatini's standards, this was an audacious coup. Iturbe looked set to join Juventus from Verona this summer, with talks so advanced by mid-July that the player even had a flight booked to Turin. But then Conte resigned and in the confusion that followed, Roma pounced, with Sabatini -- their sporting director -- sewing up a 22 million euro deal, enough to make Iturbe the fourth-most expensive player in club history. Is he worth it? Time will tell, but certainly there are few more skilful dribblers plying their trade in Italy at the moment. Only Juan Cuadrado beat an opponent more often last year in Serie A.

Iturbe might be just what Roma need to win Serie A this season.

2. Alvaro Morata, Juventus: It is hard to know what to expect from Morata, although Juventus's reported 18 million euro outlay suggests that their hopes are set fairly high. That might not sound like a vast sum in today's market, but it is the most that the Bianconeri have spent on any individual player since Andrea Agnelli took over the club presidency in 2010. A prolific goal scorer at the youth level, Morata never got the opportunities he was hoping for with the senior team at Real Madrid but has the potential to become a major star.

3. Dani Osvaldo, Inter: Which Osvaldo will we see this season at Inter: The one who scored 16 goals in 29 games for Roma back in 2012-13? Or the one who managed just four in 24 last season with Southampton and Juventus? Either way, the option to get the player on a one-year loan deal, with an option to buy at the end of the campaign, seemed like a gamble worth taking.

Marquee departures

1. Mehdi Benatia, Roma: Roma may come to regret their reluctance to give Benatia what he wanted. The centre-back claimed before leaving to join Bayern Munich that the club had reneged on a promise to improve his contract substantially this year. Although Roma did eventually offer him a contract worth close to 2.5 million euros per year -- a more than 50  percent raise -- it was too little, too late to change the player's mind. The GIallorossi were quick to sign Kostas Manolas in replacement, but they will miss a defender who allowed only nine opponents to dribble past him all season.

2. Mario Balotelli, Milan: For all the drama, petulant acts and unnecessary yellow cards, the fact remains that Balotelli scored 26 goals in 43 league games for Milan. They may live to regret selling him so cheaply. At the time of writing, the only central striker left in the Rossoneri's first-team squad is the 30-year-old Giampaolo Pazzini; time is running out for Adriano Galliani to come up with an alternative.

Losing Immobile to Borussia Dortmund is a big blow for Serie A.

3. Ciro Immobile, Torino: Of all the headline departures from Serie A this summer, Immobile's might be the most damaging -- less for the player that he is than the promise he represents. The league's top scorer last season at 24 years old, the striker had just emerged as one of the most exciting young prospects in Italian football, and yet chose to pursue his development elsewhere. A reported fee of just over 20 million euros feels too low for a player with so much potential.

Who will win it all?

Juventus remain the bookies' choice to win Serie A for a fourth season running in spite of Conte's departure. Roma's chances of closing the gap will be damaged by both the sale of Benatia and the demands of European football, which they didn't have to contend with last season. Nevertheless, they ought to be strong again this season and have earned the right to be taken seriously as challengers.

Improvement also had been expected of Napoli in their second season under Benítez, but their failure to find a way through to the Champions League's group stages will lead many to question their credentials. Should they stumble, then both Fiorentina and Inter have the potential to muscle into the top-three conversation.

Battle at the bottom

All three newly promoted sides have recent experience of playing in the top flight, not that it will necessarily help them. Little is expected of Cesena, whose own manager, Pierpaolo Bisoli, has said that he expects a "tournament of suffering." His team can at least fall back on the services of their 21-year-old goalkeeper Nicola Leali, a player whose impressive progress earned him a call-up to train with the senior national team back in March.

Empoli have similarly low expectations although their best hope comes not from youth but experience. The Tuscans' strike partnership of Massimo Maccarone and Francesco Tavano has a combined age of 69 years old.

Palermo's prospects look better after they ran away with the Serie B title last year, but to survive they will need to find someone to displace. Sassuolo and Chievo are obvious candidates, each having barely scraped to safety last year. But the former team also have room to grow after keeping hold of both Domenico Berardi and Simone Zaza, the young attackers who grabbed 27 goals between them in 2013-14.

Paolo Bandini

Paolo Bandini is a European football writer and broadcaster, contributing to ESPN, The Guardian and The Score, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Paolo_Bandini.

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