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Aug 19, 2009

Serie A club-by-club preview

ATALANTA
Having successfully avoided a return to the Serie B, Atalanta will be a completely different side from the Gigi Del Neri era, while retaining the look of a team which will try to entertain and pick up a few valuable wins along the way. Last season's memorable 3-1 home win over Inter sticks out.

Angelo Gregucci, who has done well with low-budgeted Vicenza in the Serie B, gets his second crack at a top flight side after flaming out with Lecce in 2004, but he's more experienced now and should do well. Sergio Floccari was sold to Genoa, but his replacement, Robert Acquafresca, may be an even better choice up front.

Gregucci has so far kept the 4-4-1-1 formation that employs Cristiano Doni, the captain and heart and soul of the team, behind a lone striker. Doni, however, is already 36 and may soon be looking forward to spending more time relaxing at the beach resort he co-owns with Luca Toni on the Adriatic Sea than linking up midfield and attack.

BARI
Bari's promotion to Serie A gives the top flight one of the nation's biggest cities, but one that sadly never seems to have the financial clout to even challenge for a place in Europe. In fact, the club may be changing hands soon, as an American businessman was apparently entering final negotiations with Vincenzo Matarrese, the brother of the former chairman of the Italian Football Federation and League and a member of one of the most powerful families in the region.

Matarrese had been chairman since 1981, but is not popular with fans anymore and most of the local supporters seem to prefer anyone but him.

The club has already suffered the shock departure of coach Antonio Conte, who had been among the favourites for the position at his former club Juventus before Ciro Ferrara got the nod. He resigned after a disagreement about transfers and the general planning for the new campaign, and was replaced by Giampiero Ventura. At 61, he is Serie A's oldest coach, beating Bologna's Giuseppe Papadopulo by 19 days. Ventura's only other top flight experience was with Cagliari 11 years ago, but he's a savvy veteran who has been moulding Bari's squad into 4-4-2 with shades of the 4-2-4 he used at Pisa with great success two years ago.

But that was the Serie B and Pisa's squad was better, for the division, than Bari's is for Serie A. Chances of survival will depend on the defence keeping clean sheets against sides of similar stature and strikers Paulo Barreto and Renato Meggiorini reproducing some of their scintillanting form from last season.

BOLOGNA
Worries abound among rossoblu fans. The side relied almost exclusively on the suddenly prolific Marco Di Vaio (24 goals) last year, but the stated aim of providing coach Giuseppe Papadopulo's 3-5-2 with more firepower hasn't been realised. With kick-off approaching both Papadopulo and the fans were crying out for a few more reinforcements.

The situation has been compounded by more uncertainty and awkwardness at boardroom level. First, Renzo Menarini, the owner, admitted meeting with Luciano Moggi, "an old friend", to discuss football-related matters, and it was a double blunder Firstly, because the former Juventus director is still banned from acting in any kind of position, even as a consultant, following his 2006 suspension for his part in the Calciopoli scandal.

But perhaps more astonishing was Menarini's lack of touch with the feelings of ordinary fans, as Bologna had been among the many sides heavily damaged by Moggi's alleged machinations back in 2005 and his name, along with Juventus', is still cause of disgust in town.

Then, at the end of July, the Menarinis, who have owned the club for little over a year, had reached an agreement to sell 80% of it to Albanian oil entrepreneur Rezart Taci. Taci backed out of the deal at the last minute, for reasons still unspecified, and the Menarinis were left with the task of providing new players to Papadopulo while clearly still trying to sell the club. All this in Bologna's centenary year, which is being celebrated with museum displays, artwork and a new/old design for the home shirt. The club will not like this, but the shirt looks even better as a sponsor hasn't been found yet, so the red-and-blue stripes look pristine and shining.

CAGLIARI
Lightning, especially of the kind owner Massimo Cellino customarily hurls in the direction of managers who disappoint him, didn't even strike once last year, to the astonishment of many, when debutant boss Massimiliano Allegri failed to gain a single point in the first five matches.

He was not dismissed, and Cagliari were repaid with a much better season than anyone could have anticipated, let alone after that disastrous start. Repeating it won't be easy, but Allegri, 42, has mantained his composure and command, despite losing more good players than he has signed.

A gifted midfielder in his playing days, Allegri will again field the 4-3-1-2 which he stuck to in bad times last season, but will be without the services of Robert Acquafresca, replaced by Nené, who topped the Portoguese goalscoring charts last season but is unproven at Serie A level. Much of whatever Cagliari produce will pass through the feet of Daniele Conti and trequartista Jeda, who had a sparkling season in 2008-09.

CATANIA
An entertaining side with one of the more imaginative players in the league, Giuseppe Mascara, who scored twice from just inside the opponents' half in three matches at the beginning of March, Catania decided to turn over a new leaf once it became clear their old coach, Walter Zenga, would leave. In his place, owner Antonino Pulvirenti recalled an ex-player, Gianluca Atzori, 38, a former assistant to Silvio Baldini and Zenga who had coached Ravennat to the third division play-offs last year.

His task will not be easy. Zenga was always expected to provide a spark, either with his words and actions or with some innovation on the pitch, but Atzori will perhaps be more cautious. He's dealing with a worse squad than his predecessor, but an intriguing choice has been Mariano Andujar, the Argentina goalkeeper who won the Copa Libertadores with Estudiantes a few weeks ago. Ironically, it's the 25-year-old Andujar's second stint in Sicily: he'd joined Palermo in 2005 but only played a handful of games for them before returning to South America.

CHIEVO
Mimmo di Carlo worked a minor miracle last year by steering Chievo to safety after a bad start that had cost Beppe Iachini his job, especially when you factor in any kind home factor, as only a few thousands gialloblu fans make their way to the Bentegodi for a match.

Most games against better supported clubs, in fact, result in the away side having more vocal backing, which makes Chievo's survival even more impressive.

Di Carlo's 4-3-1-2 worked well once Giampiero Pinzi was installed in the "hole" behind impressive striker and stalwart Sergio Pellissier, whose 13 goals (including a hat-trick against Juventus) earned him a call-up to Italy's national team at 30 years of age. He scored a few minutes after coming on as a sub on his debut, on June 6 against Northern Ireland. Chievo's hopes of repeating their survival will lie in Pellissier's ability to keep a decent scoring rate, but his strike partner will now be Pablo Granoche, unproven at Serie A level.

FIORENTINA
However long you look at it, you can never determine whether Fiorentina's glass is half-full or half-empty. However, their regular presence among the top four at a season's end is evidence of their resilience, overall talent and skill on the bench.

Coach Cesare Prandelli has usually been able to reach into the inner recesses of a thin squad to utilize every player to their best. Last season was not Prandelli's finest, especially at the start, but he then turned things around by going to a 4-2-3-1 which left Alberto Gilardino as the sole striker and meant Manu Vargas, as one of the three players behind him, was kept away from sheer defensive duties which he was ill equipped to do.

Felipe Melo was lost to Juventus, to the chagrin (more like fury) of most fans, but the €25m the deal brought him will be used to further strenghten the Viola as a scudetto contender in a couple of years, and Riccardo Montolivo may finally be the man at the epicentre of things. At the moment, the side still needs a central defender, while it remains to be seen how Adrian Mutu will perform, under the cloud of the huge payment owed to Chelsea.

GENOA
Having gained the unofficial title of Serie A's most entertaining side last year, the rossoblu face a difficult task this time round. Gone are Thiago Motta, the midfield schemer who was rejuvenated in Genoa, and Diego Milito, along with defender Matteo Ferrari and goalkeeper Rubinho. In short, the core of the team that thrilled fans with its attacking football which relied so much on quick movement, passing and finding space.

Astonishingly, all 56 of Genoa's goals last season were scored from inside the penalty area. Houssine Kharja, the former Siena attacking midfielder, was brought in to provide more variety with his long-range shooting, and more players will have to chip in with goals. Hernan Crespo - and Sergio Floccari, a newcomer, is already out - is not likely to duplicate Milito's 24 goals, three of them in a glorious derby win over Sampdoria.

Much is expected of Rodrigo Palacio, the former Boca Juniors forward who's taken his time adapting to Gian Piero Gasperini's unusual formation, which requires wide players to do a lot of running and tracking back. Equalling last season's fifth place, level on points with Fiorentina, will require a lot of effort. The Europa League campaign might not help, considering Genoa have already lost Floccari and, for a longer time, Bosko Jankovic, who were expected to play a huge role.

INTER
A recent survey revealed that Italians, while reining in their spending habits by a couple of percentage points, have increased the amount of money they spend on mobile phones by 189% in the past 17 years. An exquisite, concise portrait of a country where talk, despite being far from cheap, sadly outlasts and outmanoeuvres deed. Because of that, some, if you believe to what detractors of Jose Mourinho say on the bus or write in blogs, would probably name the Portuguese as honorary Italian.

His first season in charge of Inter did produce yet another title, but hardly left a good taste in the footballing mouth of those who wanted to see the Nerazzurri go beyond the fighting words and ineffable bravado of their coach. But criticism of Mourinho and Inter, the side everyone now loves to hate, went too far last season; despite never showing fluency with their football and again failing in Europe, they displayed the customary toughness and resiliency and were never really bothered by Juventus.

This time, Mourinho has a more difficult task. Having lost Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who single-handedly won a few games for Inter, the whole tactical complexion of the side has to change. Mourinho should still go for the 4-3-1-2 that had become Inter's staple throughout the latter part of last season, but he's been seeking an upgrade in the "hole". Deco, Alexander Hleb and Wesley Sneijder have at various times been considered as candidates, and something may still happen before the transfer window closes.

The coach's preferred 4-3-3 may also stage a comeback, but the three-man midfield has been a work in progress since new arrival Thiago Motta has had to adapt to playing in a different formation and Sulley Muntari, who gave way to Motta, has had to move to the right, where he's less at ease. The loss for over a month of Esteban Cambiasso, one of Inter's stalwarts, may also give Mourinho something to worry about.

Inter need to play better possession football, not least because the addition of Lucio gives them a ball-playing defender who will help midfielders out. The loss of Ibrahimovic, coupled with the arrival of Sanuel Eto'o and Diego Milito, will also contribute to fewer long balls and a more varied offensive approach. But even if they win the league again, Inter will probably be judged on how they do in Europe, a dark corner in their recent history.

JUVENTUS
Juventus have done almost everything right in the transfer market and at boardoom level, although their move to bring in Fabio Cannavaro for a second stint was met with fury by some fans who had never forgiven him for leaving the sinking ship and joining Real Madrid after demotion in 2006.

The ruthless way they sacked Claudio Ranieri last year with only two games remaining left a bitter taste, too, although the decision was vindicated when interim coach Ciro Ferrara - who's since been confirmed in charge - led them to an automatic Champions League place which had looked in danger with a fortnight to go.

Ferrara has a better squad to choose from than his predecessor, and will make more flexible use of it. Diego, the former Werder Bremen trequartista, was brought in to provide creativity and goals in the final third, and his arrival, along with that of Felipe Melo from Fiorentina, means Juventus will move from 4-4-2 and lean towards a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-1-2 with a lot of goalscoring potential.

An injury crisis in midfield has meant Christian Poulsen has been retained despite constant efforts to offload him since June, but the side has the overall look of a winner, and will probably leave its mark on Serie A and in Europe.

Good news on the club front, too. If building work proceeds without hitches, by the summer of 2011 Juventus will have their own, upscale stadium - a rare, rare instance in a Serie A landscape dominated by old, crumbling, fan-unfriendly grounds which are a sad legacy of the 1990 World Cup - to replace the ridiculously uncomfortable Delle Alpi, on whose former grounds it will rise. The Olimpico has been Juve's ground of the past three years. And the fiscal year ending on June 30 showed a €6.6m profit, another rare bright spot in debt-laden Serie A.

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