Serie A club-by-club preview
There's never a dull moment at Lazio. Delio Rossi, who had kept the ship afloat for many seasons, finally left the club, to be replaced by 45-year old Davide Ballardini - one of the few coaches who managed to avoid being sacked by Palermo's trigger-happy owner Maurizio Zamparini.
Zamparini would have found a way to point the finger at Ballardini one day, despite the good job he'd done with the side last year, but the coach put one over on him by leaving in late May for Lazio. His preparation towards the new season has been hampered by the controversy involving Goran Pandev, Cristian Ledesma and Lorenzo De Silvestri, three of the best players on the team, although De Silvestri, a Lazio fan since childhood, had lost his place in the side to Stephan Lichsteiner last year.
Pandev and Ledesma want out, while De Silvestri has declined to consider a contract extension, and all three were left out of the squad for the Italian Super Cup in Beijing. Chairman Claudio Lotito has not tried to hide his anger.
While waiting for that touchy situation to come to its conclusion, Ballardini first tried a 4-2-3-1 which had served him well a few years ago with third division Sambenedettese, but he soon realized Mauro Zarate would be less effective playing as a left winger. He reverted to a 4-3-1-2 or 4-4-2 where the Argentinian may be paired with captain Tommaso Rocchi or fellow countryman Julio Cruz in a little and large combination which should serve Lazio well.
Much will also depend on how Pasquale Foggia plays the trequartista role, while goalkeeper Fernando Muslera seems to have improved. His back-up is now former Catania shot-stopper Albano Bizzarri, which should mean the biancazzurri won't have much trouble in that area.
Back in Serie A after one season, Livorno will, as always, be walking on a tightrope. Starting with their coach, Gennaro Ruotolo, 42, a former fan favourite for his all-out effort. Sadly Ruotolo, despite leading the amaranto to a great rally and play-off final win after being installed on May 23, does not have the qualifications to officially be named as the head coach.
Enter Vittorio Russo, who will act as a fig leaf to Ruotolo. The squad looks unbalanced, and even the strenghts raise a question mark. The defence looks suspect, while confidence in the attacking trio of Cristiano Lucarelli, Francesco Tavano and trequartista Alessandro Diamanti looks justified until you realise that all three of them were relegated the last time they were starters in Serie A.
Expect, as usual, some fire-breathing remarks from owner Aldo Spinelli if, rather when, something goes wrong. Italy's obsession with powerful, controversial men in charge of something - anything - means owners sometimes appear in newspapers and on TV shows more than players and coaches, and Spinelli is never short of a good quote. He knows football, though.
The most intriguing story among the top sides, perhaps. Unless you're turned off by train wrecks. Having undergone a therapy of austerity and fiscal responsability, under the direction of owner Silvio Berlusconi, Milan sold Kaka to Real Madrid for €65m and promptly replaced him with, er, nobody, neither skill-wise nor position-wise. Which presented debutant coach Leonardo, the 39-year-old former player and ironically the man who, as a director, had been instrumental in bringing his fellow countryman to Milan in 2003, with a difficult task to start with.
Leonardo's 4-3-3 requires flank players with pace and enterprise, and apart from Gianluca Zambrotta there's no sign of any in the squad, so 4-3-1-2 is now preferred. Andrea Pirlo still directs traffic from his position just in front of the defence, but the key man is going to be Ronaldinho, whose first year at Milan was a predictable disappointment.
During a visit at Milan's training ground in July, Berlusconi apparently had the Brazilian climb on a table and swear to his team-mates he'd behave more professionally, whatever that means, but there remains a question mark over his ability to fit into whatever style Leonardo wants him to play. The new coach would like more movement than in the past, but Ronaldinho does not run into spaces like Kaka did, as he'd rather receive the ball to his feet than take opponents on.
Clarence Seedorf, that old Ancelotti favourite and one of the pillars of the side, may again end up playing a lot. His long-range shooting may also help, as the forward line still has to mesh. In defence, Paolo Maldini's retirement means Thiago Silva and Daniele Bonera may be the central pairing, unless Oguchi Onyewu adapts quickly to Serie A. Silva represents a rare case, at least in recent years, of Milan planning ahead at the back as his ball-playing ability may solve a few problems for Pirlo and allow him to shift forward at times.
Overall, though, the general impression is that Milan are deep in transition from their trophy-winning years to something that is as yet difficult to fathom. Money will not be spent in excess, and this may take some getting used to. In the meantime, though, season tickets have been renewed at a very slow pace, and a local derby against Inter on August 29 looms menacingly, given the current state of the side.
Many insiders, polled by newspapers or magazines like Guerin Sportivo, named Napoli as the club who had made the best transfer business this summer. They'd better have, having spent almost €60m in the process. The tendency of the national media when dealing with Naples and Napoli is to resort to a lot more rhetoric than an average reader or listener should be able to digest, but it is true that expectations in that football-crazy city are huge, and the fallout for those who fail to live up to them is on a par.
Last season, a middling squad did not perform to its best led by then-coach Edy Reja, who was still unlucky to get the sack after 27 games to be replaced by Roberto Donadoni. Donadoni's 3-5-2 has better players now; not the superstars one might expect, but good, solid players who may improve the quality of the team.
The best among them may be Fabio Quagliarella, an established member of Italy's national side and an exquisite goalscorer who was born in the area and has always been a Napoli fan. His partnership with mercurial Argentinian Ezequiel Lavezzi, a fan favourite who always seems to be in the news for some reason, not least because of a rift with owner Aurelio De Laurentiis over a pay rise he was expecting.
Juan Zuniga, the Colombian right-back, may be forced to play on the left but is expected to be one of the top performers after an encouraging debut season in the Serie A with Siena. Nothing less than a Champions League place - an attainable goal considering the quality of the squad - would satisfy De Laurentiis and the fans, but it is exactly this kind of pressure that has proved to be Napoli's undoing in the past.
Walter Zenga came across from the other side of Sicily to take charge of the island's biggest club, and the ink on his contract was barely dry when he announced his goal would be to win the title.
"When you buy a scratch card, do you settle for winning the lowest prize?" he said, pretending not to know the difference between playing for luck in a one-off situation and carrying a side through 38 Serie A games. Zenga, who made a great impression at Catania after a career spent coaching abroad, was simply trying to motivate his players and teach them to shoot for the stars, because nothing bad can happen if you aim high.
Well, something may happen; his players, most of whom are younger than the average Serie A performer, may try too hard to please him and forget about the everyday task at hand. Not that Zenga, who has shown a penchant for the improbable and the surprising, will let them stick to their ways too long.
A great motivator and a bubbly character who may face owner Maurizio Zamparini in a showdown or two if things do not go according to plan, Zenga will probably use a 4-3-1-2 with highly promising Argentinian playmaker Javier Pastore, only 20, occupying the place "in the hole" if he can displace Fabio Simplicio.
In defence, another 20-year old, Dane Simon Kjaer, is again expected to hold down a regular place, and is on his way perhaps to a bigger club. That would irk local fans as, given the size of the city, they expect Palermo to be a contender for at least a top-five place each year (after all, if Fiorentina can do it...), but there never seems to be any stability. And considering that Zenga, despite pledging to reach new heights with Palermo, has a stated goal of one day managing Inter, his hometown club and first love, promising players may not be the only ones who may rent, not buy, in Palermo.
It is often said relegation may not be such a bad thing, if it forces a club to take a step back and reorganise. Parma may have gone through that exact stage, following their fall from Serie A at the end of the 2007-08 season. It took them a while, though. Their first choice as coach in Serie B, Gigi Cagni, was dismissed after a few weeks by young (34) chairman Tommaso Ghirardi, who then turned to experienced campaigner Francesco Guidolin.
Guidolin led Parma back to the top flight, where he'd already managed Atalanta, Vicenza, Udinese, Bologna and Palermo, while leading Vicenza to the Coppa Italia in 1997 and a Cup Winners' Cup semi-final against Chelsea the next season.
Either with a 3-5-1-1 or a more awkward 4-3-3, Guidolin will have his hands full keeping Parma up. Some of his signings made a lot of sense, like Christian Panucci to shore up the defence and Daniele Galloppa to patrol the left side of midfield like he did at Siena, but a strike force comprising of Milan loanee Alberto Paloschi and Valery Bojinov may not be good enough if the Bulgarian fails to regain full fitness. Paloschi had been a goalscoring sensation for Milan two years ago, scored 11 for Parma in Serie B and at 19 still has a lot of room for improvement, but can he last a full Serie A season?
Enigmatic, in turmoil, difficult to read, impossible to ignore. The club is heavily in debt with parent company Italpetroli, owned by the Sensi family, owing banks more than €400m. That means coach Luciano Spalletti has seen one of his best players leave, in Alberto Aquilani, with possibly another high profile departure before the transfer window closes. Aquilani had been a peripheral figure for his hometown club after a great start, but his departure means Spalletti's choices in midfield will be further restricted.
Incoming traffic has mostly been of the "back-from-loan" sort, but Stefano Guberti, a 25-year-old attacking wide player who starred in Bari's promotion-winning side last year, may prove an interesting addition, especially if Spalletti sticks to the innovative 4-2-4 formation he introduced over the summer.
The defence looks good as long as Juan or Philippe Mexes do not miss many games because of injury and suspension, and the added benefit of having Daniele De Rossi sitting in front of them may give defenders extra time and security. De Rossi, one of the most complete midfielders in Europe when the red mist does not descend on him, will also be asked to provide a few goals with his powerful shot from outside the area, assisting Francesco Totti, whose good health is crucial for Roma (and he hasn't seen much of that lately). Roma's problem is depth: an injury or two and the starting XI, which looks as good as any, will lose its rhythm.
Gigi Del Neri, who left Atalanta because of the club's lack of ambition, has found a slightly better situation at Sampdoria, where he has been able to have a say in transfer dealings. His trademark 4-4-2 is a clear departure from Walter Mazzarri's 3-5-2 and as a consequence new players were brought in whose style should fit the new formation better, especially at the back which was not one of Samp's strengths.
Del Neri seems to have found a new peace with Antonio Cassano, who had been one of the more remonstrative players during Del Neri's short (24 games) and troubled stint at Roma in 2004. It could be down to Cassano's more mature approach or simply the fact Del Neri needs his most talented players in the squad if he hopes to lift Sampdoria closer to a top-10 finish. Just as important is a better showing against Genoa, a rivalry that is probably the closest and best in Italian football.
Cassano - whose name is regularly mentioned in every transfer rumour involving big clubs - and Giampaolo Pazzini form one of the best striking pairs in Serie A, and the addition of Claudio Bellucci, back from injury, may force Del Neri away from 4-4-2 at times to go for a 4-3-2-1 which has already been seen in pre-season friendlies.
Once some managers achieve success with limited means their clubs believe a similar task can be performed with even smaller resources, and as such proceed to offload their best players. It may be the fate of Marco Giampaolo, who kept Siena up without too much heartache last year and is being asked to repeat the feat with a squad that at first look does not seem as strong.
Gone are Houssine Kharja, Daniele Galloppa, Mario Frick and Juan Zuniga, who had contributed a lot during the past two years, and their replacements will have to show the same pace that got Siena through some testing times. In fact, a 4-3-3 with Reginaldo cutting in from the left and Massimo Maccarone doing likewise from the opposite flank, assisting centre-forwards Michele Paolucci or Abdel Ghezzal, may prove strong enough to make Siena's path an easier one. Question marks remain about the defence, which lost stalwart Daniele Portanova (a move that was met with outrage by the fans).
Pasquale Marino's Udinese went hot and cold last season, putting on displays of sublime football at times but also going winless for almost three months between early November and late January, when everything seemed to go wrong.
Seventh place, for the second consecutive year, was achieved through a combination of goalscoring ability (strikers Antonio Di Natale, Fabio Quagliarella and Simone Pep are all Italy internationals, although Quagliarella has since moved to Napoli) and good midfield play.
Gaetano D'Agostino, the playmaker, was especially good, scoring 11 times and providing exquisite passes for the forwards. In fact, the value of the 27-year old increased so much that a move to Juventus, or even Real Madrid, was on the cards until Udinese's demands proved too much for either club.
D'Agostino's main task this season will be to keep his concentration, having missed a glorious chance for a life-changing move, but the rest of the side is almost identical to last year. Antonio Floro Flores will replace Quagliarella at centre-forward, as he already did many times last year, but despite the brilliance of Swiss international Gohkan Inler there might be some trouble in midfield as both Christian Obodo and Asamoah have suffered knee injuries that will keep them out of the side for a lengthy period.