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Mourinho returns to Stamford Bridge

50-50 Challenge

Big boys are back as Serie A returns to action

One may say this is, at least before day one, the most evenly balanced Serie A season in years.

If you consider that, regardless of the investigation about the Calciopoli scandal which marred the 2004/05 and 2005/06 campaigns, most non-Juventus fans still believe there was something dodgy about previous years too, the upcoming season looks like heaven for those who still hope Italian soccer can be saved from itself.

There are no penalised teams starting on minus points, no club risking extinction this summer (some even appear to be on sounder financial ground), and the only real controversy revolved around the exact date when the Serie A would kick off, as many players wanted it to be August 19. The early start would allow the Italy players to get some sort of match fitness for the crucial European Championship qualifier against France on September 8. Wednesday's second half debacle in Hungary proved it is much needed.

Not only that, but the mere number of teams who appear to have a motivational chip on their shoulders should make for an entertaining season. Inter, for example, will feel the need to confirm their status as the best side in the country. They were awarded the 2006 title posthumously and despite dominating the campaign last year the whiff of suspicion was always around that winning a Serie A without Juventus, and with neighbours Milan on a 9-point penalty, was always going to to be fool's gold.

This time, with an impressive squad apparently strengthened by no departures and the arrival of Christian Chivu and proven goalscorer David Suazo, their overall quality is even higher. But their home defeat to Roma in last Sunday's Supercup, the first really meaningful match either side had played - overhyped August friendlies are refused citizenship in this column - raised some alarm, and manager Roberto Mancini drew criticism, and rightly so, for moaning about his lack of personnel on the right flank.

Even though Roma do seem to have Inter's number, having beaten them at the San Siro last April on a day when a win would have clinched the Nerazzurri the title, it is still difficult to believe the Giallorossi will finish above their rivals, whose squad just seems too strong and varied, perhaps too varied - yes, even on the right flank.

The only weakness Inter may have is on the psychological front: despite their protestations to the contrary, the players must know their 2007 title must be validated by a repeat, and Inter have never been known for their mental fortitude. Marco Materazzi's hamstring injury may have also deprived them of an increasingly influential voice in the dressing room.

Others with much to prove and a uncontrolled ambition to do it are Milan and Juventus, of course. By beating Liverpool in Athens, the Rossoneri blew a raspberry towards all of us who had questioned their depth and health last year. However, the reality is Carlo Ancelotti's side may have overachieved in a season when their performances were up to their reputation only in Europe.

The Milan squad has been strengthened by the arrival of Emerson and the 17-year old Pato, but club insiders also like to point out that having Massimo Oddo and Ronaldo from day one, instead of from February, also constitutes an upgrade, and it's hard to argue against that. Milan's proven winning mentality may serve them well, but the retirement of Costacurta, Maldini's age and Nesta's history of injury may still leave them short in central defence.

Juventus are back after a one-year absence, which one may deem self-imposed since their demotion to the Serie B was caused by their previous directors' meddling and interfering with referees and referees' administrators. With two fewer Italian titles than they believed they had eighteen months ago, the Turin side will not be welcomed by many: though their punishment validated, in the eyes of a lot of fans, decades of suspicion about their influence on referees and many still see them as targets for insults and slurs.

The players were never guilty of anything - even those who were there at the time and vigorously fought for their right to celebrate the two titles that were taken away - and the current managerial set-up is new and have distanced themselves from their precedessors. This means Juventus players should not pay for the sins of their, er, fathers and should be allowed to express themselves without being subjected to a deluge of abuse, but that's just utopia, perhaps.

Claudio Ranieri's side will be extra motivated by the quest for respectability, but there appear to be shortcomings in defence, and the midfield probably does not have a quality schemer. How Juventus' season will develop, with many hardcore fans blaming the board for its perceived lack of ambition, is going to be one of the more interesting issues of the season. That they do not play in Europe and may find themselves fresher by the last third of season will also be a factor.

As for Roma, their exquisite approach play sometimes does become too intricate and you get an Arsenal-like feeling they'd like to walk the ball across the goal-line. Unless of course Francesco Totti, having freed himself of all concerns about the national team, repeats last year's extraordinary scoring feats.

The arrivals of Giuly, Juan and, just the other day, Cicinho have created huge expectations among Roma fans, who see a deeper squad than last year, when loss of form and injury often meant their beautiful rhythm skipped a beat, and that's when their game was music for the ears no more.

Another dark horse is Fiorentina, despite losing their top scorer Luca Toni. One of the few sides to really put their trust in young players - regardless of nationality - the Viola nonetheless signed Christian Vieri as an insurance, but the focus will be on young centre-forward Giampaolo Pazzini, whom readers may remember as the scorer of a hat-trick when Italy's Under 21s drew with England in Wembley's inaugural match.

Among the others, Lazio's season may well depend on how they do in the return leg of the Champions League qualifying round in Bucarest next week. While another intriguing issue will be how Antonio Cassano handles what looks increasingly like his last chance to impress someone with his skills rather than his behaviour, at Sampdoria.

It will be a season with a full complement of derby matches, as Milan, Genoa, Rome and Turin will all see a couple of internecine clashes, but this also means the terror alert will be high again. The bad signs are there already: Milan fans have been barred from travelling to the first match of the season away at Genoa, as it's the first time the two sides meet after the 1995 killing of a Genoa fan and the grapevine of police intelligence, fan message boards and general attitude around town suggested a radical measure be taken. Many believe this also means a surrender to a small minority, as had happened three years ago when the Roman derby was canceled after a false rumour about a child being killed outside the ground, and technically it is actually not the first time Genoa and Milan have met after the Spagnolo tragedy, as the original game had been abandoned and replayed a fortnight later.

And in the Serie C, the regionalised third tier of Italian football, league officials decided it would be wiser to split Italy on an East-West axis, rather than North-South, in order to avoid the many derby matches in the South which have a sad potential for violence, in a part of the country which many see as out of control on the violence front. The laws are there to prevent and punish, in fact they were there even before Police Inspector Filippo Raciti was killed last February in Catania, but rules cannot change a people's attitude and a large number of fans simply do not appear to have even been brushed by last year's tragedies.

On a brighter note, Serie A attendances will be up: Juventus, who have historically had disappointing crowds, will not contribute to the increase as much as will Genoa and Napoli, who bring a total average of more than 80,000 to the top flight, but on the other hand the Serie B will look more and more like an empty shell. The only solace will be that with those big clubs having gone up, this time the leading sports newspapers and television channels will not annoy all neutral Serie B fans with their badly concealed enthusiasm for Juventus, Genoa and Napoli.

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