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Aug 29, 2008

Getting back to business

The football fans always has to endure a hard time between the last competitive kick in June and the first meaningful matches deep into August, and in some countries it is worse than others. If fans in England believe the drawn-out saga of the Gareth Barry transfer (or not) to Liverpool has been impossibly boring, try having that kind of speculation thrown in your face every day by THREE sports dailies, plus the endless buzz in the background by Sky Italy. The satellite TV company do a fantastic if over-hyping matches but all too often resort to the lowest common denominator when dealing with the transfer market, sometimes giving agents a platform to hawk their goods.

Even the 2008 European Championships, a delightful football feast for the eyes at times, was seen by some media only through the distorting glasses of the potential deals involving the better players on show (which espouses my long held belief that Italians love football more as the simplest way of bickering and speculating than as a sport in itself: I have always thought the regular July sighting of hundreds of holidaymakers in their beach recliners reading sports papers containing 90% transfer market rumours and 10% fact is quite disturbing).

The start of the Serie A season is especially welcome as it wipes away all the misplaced hype and ridiculous coverage devoted to July friendlies and mini-tournaments played solely for the sponsors. Managers know they have little to no value and, as was Juventus' case in the grossly over-hyped Naples tournament a few days ago, fielding what almost amounted to a youth side may prove beneficial to their development but of little value to viewers, unless they want to take a glimpse of a new signing.

The furthest back in the mind those awful matches are pushed, the better, and the encouraging news is that the 2008/09 Serie A season may soon succeed in sweeping away all the ridiculous headlines about that new striker 'already showing his eye for goal' after bagging, say, a couple against some Alpine village amateur XI. Indeed, it may prove to be one of the best Serie A season in years, for while Inter are still clearly favourites, the quality of some of the contenders appears to be more refined than in the recent past.

Inter, of course, brought in José Mourinho, who wasted little time in having most the media eating out of his hand. His perfect use of a local Milanese term in his introductory press conference had people in the room and those watching on TV nudging each other with a knowing wink.

His performance cemented a depressing about-face in the coverage of the Portuguese coach by the Italian media. Many who had routinely sneered at him for only being able to win using Roman Abramovich's millions, fielding boring sides and snubbing favourite son Andriy Shevchenko, began highlighting his skills, sophisticated approach and dedication, not to mention the glowing reviews from former players.

Mourinho will have a stronger squad than predecessor Roberto Mancini had last year, for the simple fact Inter did not lose any valuable players and added Amantino Mancini and Sulley Muntari. While reservations persist about the Ghanaian's ability to last a full season without incurring disciplinary trouble, Mancini looks like the perfect player for the left side of the forward line in Mourinho's 4-3-3 formation.

With the left side sorted it poses the question of who's going to man the other side? Luis Figo, who was as happy as anybody to see (Roberto) Mancini go, cannot be expected, at nearly 36, to last a full season there. This is why rumours about the possible arrival of Ricardo Quaresma have abounded, irritatingly, for weeks.

Inter's season was almost derailed last spring by injuries, with central defenders especially hit, and a repeat of those problems, paired with the apparent decline of Marco Materazzi, would again constitute a hurdle for Mourinho, who paired Esteban Cambiasso with fellow Argentinian Burdisso in the Super Cup against Roma, a match where Inter ran rings around the giallorossi in the first half before conceding an equaliser then winning on penalties.

Expectations, of course, are high: Mancini never managed to fully convince of his own qualities while leading the nerazzurri to two consecutive titles. A burning desire to do well in Europe, 44 years after Inter's last European Cup triumph, was one of the reasons owner Massimo Moratti brought in Mourinho.

Once again, Milan - the city - will be at the epicentre of Italian football, with the goings-on at Mìlan - the club - almost overshadowing Mourinho's arrival and setting the stage for season ticket sales surpassing the 40,000 mark, the only Italian club to do so.

Ronaldinho finally appeared in a rossonera shirt, nearly two years after rumours linked him to the club, and only months after owner Silvio Berlusconi had mentioned the Brazilian was 'not what we need at the moment'. His arrival left many insiders baffled as to the rossoneri's transfer policy. Last season's poor showing, at least by Mìlan's high standards, highlighted the need to plug some holes in the side and raise the quality level of the squad, but there has seemed to be a schizophrenic approach to improving the side.

Many fans, even those less prone to the lure of the big names and the fascination of the quick fix, identified midfield and defence as the areas more in need of revamping, and the first signing, Mathieu Flamini, looked a step in the right direction, but the top brass' fixation with Ronaldinho seemed to distract them from pursuing other fixes.

The unveiling of a slightly rotund Ronaldinho, in front of almost 30,000 at the San Siro one evening in early July, was one of the more surreal scenes of the summer, and perhaps should have prompted the Sky Sports Italy staff to immediately send sales representatives at the stadium's gates to sell subscriptions to their Calcio package: after all, fans who had displayed such enthusiasm for the Brazilian had surely not seen him play for a while on Sky's Liga broadcasts.

Obviously, a fully fit and rejuvenated Ronaldinho, who's still only 28, would dramatically improve Milan by himself, provided coach Carlo Ancelotti finds a tactical way to use all of his offensive weapons, but more on this later.

Other activity saw Milan sell Alberto Gilardino, Yoann Gourcuff, Dario Simic and, on Thursday, Massimo Oddo, while bringing in, among the better known names, Gianluca Zambrotta, Andriy Shevchenko (another long-running saga which had observers exhausted), Philippe Senderos and Marco Borriello, who was runner-up in the Serie A goalscoring charts last season while on loan to Genoa.

That means at least six offensive-minded players in the squad, seven before 18-year old Alberto Paloschi was loaned to Parma: Ronaldinho, Kaka', Pato, Borriello, Shevchenko, Pippo Inzaghi. Since Ancelotti's 4-3-1-2 or 4-3-2-1 should also include Clarence Seedorf, one of Milan's stalwart in the last few years, it is easy to imagine how difficult the coach's job will be in finding the right place and the right minutes for everyone. There is the additional problem that the Uefa Cup, with its limited number of matches in comparison to the Champions League, will not allow Ancelotti to rotate players and give everybody a good run, although Kaka's absence through injury in the first month will make his task just a little bit easier.

And there is obviously a question mark over the defence, where Alessandro Nesta keeps experiencing back trouble and Paolo Maldini, despite retaining great positional sense and impressive physical conditioning, cannot be expected to feature regularly. Adding Kakha Kaladze's injury setback, it is easy to understand why Senderos, despite a patchy record as a part-time starter for Arsenal, was brought in.

Milan's goal this season is winning Serie A: the first time in years this has happened after too many campaigns spent pouring water on the fans' domestic ambitions by bringing up the higher purpose of European and world domination. Ancelotti's task will not have been made easier, though, by vice-chairman's Adriano Galliani assertion that 'the ball is now in his court, he knows he has to win the title'.

The biggest challenge to Inter's domination could come from Juventus, though. The bianconeri, back in the Champions League proper only two years after being forcibly demoted to Serie B, endured a roller-coaster of a summer, transfer market wise. When the signing of Olof Mellberg and Amauri and the return of Sebastian Giovinco were announced early on, fans reacted with glee and a belief Juventus were getting closer and closer to their despised Milanese rivals; but once the directors' activity hit a roadblock in the shape of the inability to bring in Xabi Alonso, fans revolted. Christian Poulsen's arrival was a signal to them that Juve had given up on raising the standards in central midfield, as the hard-tackling Dane is obviously a completely different player from the no-tackling Spaniard. Things got worse when substantiated rumours of a deal with Inter to acquire Dejan Stankovic spread: as Stankovic had frequently gone out of his way to point out Inter's title triumphs had been 'clean', as opposed to those Juventus had won with the help of outside and inside influences, he had ascended to the top of any Juventus fans' list of personae non gratae, and to see him touted as the bianconeri's next summer signing was just too much for the Juve fans.

Stankovic's move fell through, for a convergence of others reasons, and at the moment Juventus have no creative players in the middle of the park, unless 22-year old Claudio Marchisio, back after being loaned to Empoli along with pint-sized 'trequartista' Sebastian Giovinco, can dislodge one of the better know team-mates. An inconvenience Ranieri will try to mend by having Mauro Camoranesi and Pavel Nedved drift inside as often as possible, leaving the flanks open for the fullbacks to exploit, although Juventus' are nothing to enthuse about at the moment, and the absence in central defence of Giorgio Chiellini, perhaps Italy's best player at the Euro 2008, means options there are limited, at the moment.

Another problem could be up front. Amauri can't be kept on the bench for long, but the same can be said of David Trezeguet and Alessandro Del Piero. Since Ranieri rarely uses three strikers, he'll have to balance minutes and matches carefully, but one of the reasons Juve could have a great season is the abundance of riches, to use a cliché.

As for Roma, Inter's closest contenders last year, their outlook improved during the last days of transfer activity, when Julio Baptista and Jeremy Menez joined the club, following a frustrating summer of near misses. Lack of funds caused by long-term financial difficulties meant they had to lower their sights, which did not sit well with some fans oblivious to the words 'financial responsibilities', but the latest moves may have raised new hopes.

Coach Luciano Spalletti actually has decent options on defence, having brought in John-Arne Riise and Simone Loria, but Francesco Totti's return to fitness after last spring's knee injury is a concern, and there could be some cause for Spalletti to tweak his favourite 4-2-3-1 formation, which had arguably produced the best football in Italy in the past couple of years. Roma's squad may simply not be deep enough for another title challenge.

We'll be back with more on the other sides next week, but the analysis of potential title winners must end with a mention of Fiorentina, the summer's biggest spenders with approximately €50milion. The general consensus is the Viola, who also qualified for the Champions League, are still one or two years away from really contending, but last year's fourth place and the addition of a proven goalscorer like Gilardino, who has relegated Giampaolo Pazzini to the bench, plus an apparent improvement in the middle of the park with Brazilian schemer Felipe Melo (who bizarrely named his son Lineker after his own father's favourite player) and on the defensive flanks with Peruvian Juan Manuel Vargas, very effective going forward with Catania last year.

Fiorentina's squad is deeper than in the past but experience is in shorter supply than elsewhere among the contenders. The big question is obviously how the Viola will cope with having to play high-pressure matches twice a week, especially if they go past the group stage of the champions League. They barely made it through the winter last year despite the less strenuous effort the Uefa Cup required, and this is one of the reasons Fiorentina tried to improve quality and quantity, while resisting Roma's attempt to prise Adrian Mutu away from them. Selling the Romanian to a rival for Champions League places would have sent the wrong signal after a sumptuous July of transfer market activity, and by retaining him the Viola kept their place among the favourites.

Four, possibly five sides in with a decent chance of winning the Scudetto: I told you it was just about time we moved on from the unbearable silliness of the close season.

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