A new Serie A season is upon us, and the early signs suggest it should be the most interesting in years.
The top teams in Italy might lack the clout of their international rivals, but in terms of domestic strength in depth, the Italian championship has a strong case for being considered the most competitive of all Europe's major leagues.
Who can do what over the course of the season is a subject for another day—and one we're sure to return to. For now, let's stick to the opening weekend and hypothesize about what will be the main events making headlines after round one.
Livorno host Roma, and Hellas Verona are at home to Milan. At least one of those fixtures will end in a shock defeat.
Roma's opponents to the north score plenty and also concede, not unlike the Giallorossi in recent seasons. Whether new coach Rudi Garcia has tightened things up at the back for the Lupi remains to be seen, but with their attacking talent this game certainly looks like one that will be full of goals.
Milan's opponents are harder to judge. The Mastini return to Serie A after a long and arduous battle back from the lower reaches of Italian football. They missed out on winning Serie B by three points to Sassuolo, but looked impressive throughout and have the tradition, support and structure to reclaim a long-term Serie A berth for themselves.
The Hellas fans will want an early scalp, and Max Allegri's Milan would be the perfect victims. We can only hope that the racist elements of the Verona fans, long a problem for the Gialloblu, don't make a victim of anyone else.
For Napoli, the Rafa-lution begins in earnest at home to Bologna. Benitez' new-look Azzurri take on a side that Stefano Pioli has crafted into one of the league's consistent performers, and while the Rossoblu won't be challenging for Scudetto honours, the league's major sides ignore them at their peril.
A lot will be different at the San Paolo. There'll be a new manager on the bench, and with him, a new formation on the pitch. There'll also be a new man up front—brought in to replace perhaps the most iconic Napoli player of the last decade.
Gonzalo Higuain's move from Real Madrid to Napoli helped to ease the pain of losing Edinson Cavani to Paris Saint-Germain, and this observer predicts that the Argentine will get off to a flying start and score in his league debut. It won't be long before the Partenopei faithful have all but forgotten the Uruguayan.
It's not been the easiest of starts to life at the San Siro for Walter Mazzarri, and things are unlikely to get much better any time soon.
The club is still desperately searching for reinforcements ahead of the new season, but it's a situation made difficult by the fact that president Massimo Moratti is also in talks with an Asian businessman to sell at least part of his shares. Everyone at the Nerazzurri would desperately like a good start to the league campaign.
It's hard to know if they'll get one against Genoa. Not unlike Inter, the Grifone had a brutal season in 2012-13 and will be determined to improve this campaign. The club have taken a gamble on former Lazio, Fiorentina and Palermo midfielder Fabio Liverani, whom president Enrico Preziosi has promoted from the youth set-up to be manager.
There'll be pressure on Liverani to get a result, but nothing like that being felt by his opposite number. A surprise win—or even a draw—for Genoa in Milan will start his campaign very nicely and heap more misery on Mazzarri after a difficult pre-season.
Sampdoria finished 16th last term, but you wouldn't think it if you'd only seen them play against champions Juventus.
The Blucerchiati twice overcame Antonio Conte's men in 2012-13, winning 1-2 in Turin and then 3-2 in Genoa on the final day of the season.
A third win in a row might be too much to ask of Delio Rossi's men, but they'll be motivated by the record and eager to secure at least a draw in front of the home fans. And if they can beat the favourites and take an early—if temporary—lead in the championship? So much the better.
They're from the smallest town in Serie A, but there's big things happening at U.S. Sassuolo Calcio and plenty of people are tipping them as the surprise package of the season.
Former Roma midfielder Eusebio Di Francesco is at the helm and last term presided over a comfortable promotion campaign. This season will be all about staying up, but his squad has some players with talent enough to do more.
None more so than young Domenico Berardi, who, despite being just 18, is already being tipped for great things. If the Daily Mail is to be believed, not only Juventus and Roma but also both Manchester clubs and Liverpool have already made moves to sign the young Italian, who looks set to impress in Serie A this term. A goal against Torino would announce his arrival perfectly.