Predicting the Top 4 in Italy's Serie A This Season
If there's one sure way for a sports reporter to set himself up for sustained abused and belittlement, it's by making predictions at the start of the season.
Serie A looks set to be the most competitive it's been in years—possibly the most competitive domestic competition of all the major European leagues—and only the very brave or the very foolish would predict how it's all going to pan out.
With that said, this poor corespondent has been left with the thankless task to do just that. So who's going to finish at the top of Italian football?
The Nearly Men: AS Roma
Two seasons into the American Roma "project", there's been little to show for it. Letting Vincenzo Montella leave was the first mistake made, and since then things haven't got much better. Luis Enrique, Zdenek Zeman and Aurelio Andreazzoli have all spent time on the bench, and none have succeeded.
The task of fulfilling the potential in this talented squad is now left to Rudi Garcia, the man who worked wonders with Lille, winning a league and cup double with the French side in 2011. The 49-year-old must bring stability to the Giallorossi, who had seven coaches in the time he spent at the helm in Lille.
The early signs are good.
Signings have been made to suit the manager's style of play, which is a blend of attacking, entertaining football that should be easy to adapt to for the existing Roma squad and to the liking of the demanding crowd in the Italian capital.
The quality is there, but after two difficult campaigns it's hard to see the Lupi breaking into the crucial top three and earning Champions League football. A cup run—possibly to exorcise the demons left by losing to rivals Lazio in the final last May—is more likely, as Garcia lays the foundations for a stronger campaign the following year.
Third: AC Milan
Max Allegri needs a better start to this season if he's going to keep his job. It had seemed likely that the Scudetto-winning coach was on his way out of Milanello, only for club owner Silvio Berlusconi to change his mind at the last minute.
The two continue to have a fractious relationship, and any slip-up from the coach will have serious consequences. A good European campaign and a league challenge will be expected, but with some areas of the squad still questionable, the strain will show and they'll have to settle for third.
Were it not for the disastrous opening games of the 2012-13 campaign, the Rossoneri might well have won the league. Talent is not the problem; consistency and squad depth is, particularly at the back.
Several members of the squad will be pushing for a place in Cesare Prandelli's World Cup squad, so you'd expect them to give it their all, but with the talent at the next two clubs it's hard to see Allegri improving on last season's finish.
They've got a soft spot for Argentines in Naples, and Gonzalo Higuain's about to find out just what it means to be the main man at Napoli.
The Partenopei faithful are always a fiery bunch, but this season there's a genuine belief that they can challenge for the title and the San Paolo promises to be red hot.
Edinson Cavani has left for Paris Saint-Germain, but oddly enough the Azzurri look a better team without him. They've kept hold of Marek Hamsik, and the addition of Higuain calmed fears about where the goals would come from.
The excellent Belgian winger Dries Mertens will only strengthen what was already an excellent attacking line, in which local boy-wonder Lorenzo Insigne is also going to feature prominently. If new boss Rafa Benitez can get the chemistry right, this could be one of the continent's best forward lines.
It's worth noting that Benitez is a manager who tends to get results wherever he goes. His 44 games in charge at Chelsea had the same percentage of wins as Jose Mourinho's last 44, without the luxury of having hand-picked a squad of winners like the Portuguese did.
On top of that, only one manager at Liverpool post-WWII won more games than the Spaniard—and that was Kenny Dalglish's first stint during which he had one of the greatest teams of all time. On top of that, he's one of the few to ever break the Barcelona-Real Madrid duopoly in La Liga.
Benitez' tactics, and the arrival of Raul Albiol to bolster an already solid defence, should mean that the Azzurri lose few games this season. But to overcome the team at number one, they'll need to win almost all of them.
I've already written at length about the warning shot Juventus fired when they humiliated Lazio in the recent Supercoppa Italiana.
Last season, the only flaw with Juve was that their strikers were far from world class. They were serviceable, and the quality of the midfield and the back-line saw them through.
This year, that same core of talent behind the forwards will be feeding Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente—and the results should be devastating. On top of that, Paul Pogba looks set to continue his development into one of the game's best players, leaving Antonio Conte with an embarrassment of riches.
The Bianconeri are the team to beat, and this reporter doesn't see anyone with the quality to do it. There's no telling what can happen over the next 38 games, of course, but before it's even started it looks like the league is Conte's to lose.
Part of the problem with this sort of thing is leaving people out.
Vincenzo Montella's Fiorentina are one of the most promising sides in European football, and with the addition of Mario Gomez could be a force to be reckoned with. If either Milan or Roma slip up, the Viola will be right in there.
Otherwise, they're still a work in progress. That might sound harsh, but it's worth remembering Montella's men were only battling for a Champions League place last term because Milan had such an appalling start, and because Roma were abysmal.
The Lupi capitulated under the stress of Zeman's unique brand of management, and were pushovers under Aurelio Andreazzoli. They were one of only five teams to lose to the relegated Palermo and they threw away points at Sampdoria, Pescara and Chievo Verona. Assuming Garcia's tenure is not a disaster it's hard to see Roma being so profligate again.
Inter, meanwhile, could be the league's dark horse—but Walter Mazzarri's got his work cut out for him. His squad is a mixture of unproven talent and ageing stars, and he's tasked with reforming them into a winning unit using his preferred three-man defence after a woeful 2012-13 season.
The last man to attempt such drastic changes at the Giuseppe Meazza was Gian Piero Gasperini—he lasted just five games. That's something that might be bothering Mazzarri, who has the curious honour of being one of the few Serie A managers to have never been sacked. So far.
Elsewhere, Lazio and Udinese should play a part in who finishes higher up the table but neither look like having the quality or depth to really worry the league's very best. If anyone's upsetting the balance of power in Serie A, this writer's money is on Napoli or Roma.
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