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30 stats for Messi's 30th birthday

By ESPN Staff

Calcio returns to normal after scandal

MILAN, Aug 16 (Reuters) - Italy is eagerly awaiting the prospect of the most exciting Serie A season in years with no team starting on minus points and big guns Juventus back in the top flight.

The last campaign was damaged by Juve's demotion to the second tier for match-fixing and Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio and Reggina having points deducted for their role in the scandal.

Inter Milan, awarded the 2006 scudetto in a courtroom, broke records galore on their way to a first title on the field since 1989 but it was devalued by the lack of competition.

This season though offers a raft of mouthwatering clashes with big clubs Genoa and Napoli also in the mix after promotion.

There is even the prospect of a four horse race for the championship, which in many ways has benefited from the traumas.

Despite the slightly hollow victory, Inter now believe in themselves and a repeat of previous collapses is unlikely.

Similarly AS Roma gained confidence from finishing runners-up with Francesco Totti banging in 26 goals to win the European Golden Boot and proving he could play upfront alone.

Milan's eight-point deduction meant they could not mount a title challenge, which gave Carlo Ancelotti's side the chance to concentrate on winning the Champions League.

Juventus want to show they are still a force despite their year in Serie B and have gone on a large spending spree to complement the top names they kept such as Gianluigi Buffon.

'Serie A this year will be beautiful, competitive and enhanced by the great teams that were missing before - Napoli, Genoa and Juventus,' said Juve coach Claudio Ranieri, who kept Parma up last season before replacing Didier Deschamps.

Stadium security has also been improved following the shock at a policeman's death during riots at Catania in February.

All is still not rosy in Italian football, however.

Outside the main four, most clubs are short on resources and top players with Lazio and Parma shadows of their former selves.

Milan's Kaka apart, big foreign names have generally been choosing Spain or England over Italy in recent years but now even Italians are turning their backs on Serie A.

Italy striker Luca Toni moved to Bayern Munich from Fiorentina and among others Livorno striker Cristiano Lucarelli made the surprise decision to go to Ukraine's Shakhtar Donetsk.

The flow of talent into Serie A has been a trickle at best.

Roma brought in Brazil defender Juan and Barcelona winger Ludovic Giuly but have failed to address the issue of who would score the goals if talisman Totti was injured for a long period.

Lyon's Portugal midfielder Tiago was Juve's biggest buy at €13 million but some fans are disappointed.

The defence looked shaky in Serie B and new boys Jorge Andrade and Czech centre back Zdenek Grygera have not stopped the rot in friendlies.

The big moves came within Italy with Inter using their champions' status to tempt Romania defender Cristian Chivu from Roma and Cagliari striker David Suazo. Milan tried to hijack the Suazo deal and relations between the rivals are at a real low.

Italy will come together though in May to honour a great player. AC Milan captain Paolo Maldini, 39, will retire after 23 years at the San Siro and is desperate to add to his 24 winners' medals.