Serie A: 5 Teams to Watch in 2011-12
When football arises in conversation, many associate with Italy. This is because Italy is a footballing hotbed.
With four World Cup trophies to its name, Italy maintains a grand pedigree for football of great quality. It is paradoxical that following one of the nation's greatest triumphs at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, a match-fixing scandal unfolded, an uproar that brought great repercussions for the guilty clubs involved and also tarnished Italy's reputation as a respectable league.
The last five seasons in Italy's top league, Serie A, have been less than spectacular as the Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga have enjoyed more of the limelight. One only has to look as far as Internazionale, the team that won four consecutive titles from 2006 to 2009, to note the lack of up-and-coming youth in Serie A; almost all of Inter's players are foreign.
The Nerazzurri's suffocating clamp on the title left others in their wake. Concisely, Italy has been in a lull recently; the aging national side's shameful performance in South Africa last summer was the most blatant indicator of this inconsistency.
Fortunately, Italy appears to be emerging from her slumber. Many clubs are making feisty and deft moves in the summer transfer market, rays of youth are beginning to permeate through the stale veteran guard and best of all, Antonio Cassano is still stripping down to the brief after the final whistle of every game.
I give you five teams that will provide optimal entertainment in a season which could be the most competitive we have witnessed in years.
Internazionale: Alright Without Eto'o?
Diego Milito, one of the league's prolific scorers, will look to power Inter to the summit.
Inter's chokehold on the league was broken last season as cross-city rivals Milan hoisted the league trophy in May. Integral striker Samuel Eto'o was lured from the San Siro by budding Russian side Ankhi, promising left-back Davide Santon moved to Newcastle United and caretaker manager Leonardo, who expertly steered the team away from the wreck that they approached while under Rafa Benitez, left for greener grasses.
Not to worry; the Nerazzurri have signed Uruguayan attacker Diego Forlan, who proliferated into one of Europe's most feared strikers at Atletico Madrid. Dutch dynamo playmaker Wesley Sneijder resisted a move to Manchester United over the summer, and he could link up brilliantly with Forlan.
Behind Sneijder are rock-solid midfielders Esteban Cambiasso and Thiago Motta, flanked by speedster Jonathan Biabany and coveted winger Mauro Zarate, who is on loan from Lazio.
In the back, Chivu, Lucio, Zanetti and Maicon cement Inter's strong spine. I am tipping Inter to win the league because of their incredible depth, pace, technicality and strength.
Predicted Finish: First
Juventus: It's Not over Until the Old Lady Sings
Juve's last Scudetto in 2006.
Italy's greatest team is back. Well, almost back. Juventus have signed many good players in this summer's transfer market, such as midfielder Antonio Pazienza and right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner from Lazio. The latter has shown himself to be the fittest player in Juve's preseason sessions, and Pazienza, who has also impressed, will be expected to shore up the gap in defensive midfield, where the overpriced departed Felipe Melo failed to impress.
More recently, Juventus nabbed Chilean stalwart Arturo Vidal from Bayer Leverkusen in Germany. Vidal, who featured in the 2011 Copa America, is also a holding midfielder, strong in the tackle and the pass.
Le Zebre also added Switzerland's Reto Ziegler at left-back, and made the signing of the summer when they coaxed Italy veteran Andrea Pirlo from AC Milan. Pirlo is a creative attacking midfielder with a knack for set pieces, with vast international and club experience. Twenty-two year-old Albin Ekdal of Sweden has also been brought in, likely to replace Pirlo in a few years's time.
Midfield virtuoso Claudio Marchisio started the past season at right midfield, but has since been moved to the center. He is Juve's best youth product at present and complements other attackers such as veteran Alessandro Del Piero, Vincenzo Iaquinta and Fabio Quagliarella.
More recently, Juventus have signed Macedonian forward Mirko Vucinic from Roma and speedy winger Eljero Elia from Hamburg, adding to the depth of their squad; they will surely be a contender for a Champions League spot. The Bianconeri are the most widely supported club in the country; there must be something to this fascinating comeback story.
Predicted Finish: Second
Milan: Repeat of 2011?
Milan triumphed last term by a margin of six points. They could find themselves on the losing side of that gap this year.
The red-and-black half of Milan celebrated their team's first league title since 2003 at the expense of Internazionale.
Deft summer signings in 2010 helped Milan's cause; Kevin-Prince Boateng is a brilliant, strong trequartista, and Holland skipper Mark Van Bommel is a dominant holding midfielder—and he is assisted by the tenacious Gennaro Gattuso.
This summer, Alberto Aquilani signed from Liverpool after a season on loan at Juve, and started in an inspiring two-goal comeback to draw with Lazio. Promising young centre-back Thiago Silva complements veteran Alessandro Nesta. Giant centre-forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic completes Milan's strong backbone, and he will play alongside Antonio Cassano or the speedy Alexandre Pato.
I reckon that Milan will baulk at other improved squads such as Juve or Inter.
Predicted Finish: Third
Napoli: Hungry for a Scudetto, Not Pasta
Napoli is a rising force in Italian football. The Partenopei have great attacking depth in the likes of Marek Hamsik, Ezequiel Lavezzi, well-travelled Giuseppe Mascara and prolific Uruguay hitman Edinson Cavani.
They are a pleasure to watch, playing attacking, outgoing football.
Swiss hardman Gokhan Inler commands midfield while Paolo Cannavaro shores up the backline in front of longtime keeper Morgan de Sanctis. Inter loanee Goran Pandev could form a delightful partnership with Hamsik in midfield, augmenting Napoli's attacking threat.
Napoli are optimistic about their upcoming Champions League campaign, and for good reason. More importantly, all of Napoli's important players appear to be invested in their team's improvement and ascension through the European and domestic ranks.
Predicted finish: Fourth
Udinese: Looking to Improve on Fourth
Udinese's fervent fan base will help them through what is likely to be a challenging season.
Similar to Napoli, they boast attacking prowess in the likes of Antonio Di Natale and Antonio Floro Flores. Di Natale has been Serie A's top scorer for the past two seasons with a total of 57 goals, and big things will be expected of Floro Flores on his return from a six-month loan spell at Genoa.
Unfortunately, the Bianconeri could not hold on to all of their stars, as midfield stalwart Gokhan Inler moved west to Napoli and integral forward Alexis Sanchez signed with European champions Barcelona. Udinese will likely struggle to retain their Champions League spot, and for many pundits, a Europa League spot is in the books.
Predicted Finish: Fifth
With a potential four-way tussle for the title, Serie A 2011-12 is set to be abundantly entertaining from start to finish. Teams like Catania, Cagliari, Fiorentina and Parma usually start off emphatically, but end up in mid-table, while the likes of Chievo Verona seem to improve as the season progresses.
I am giving Siena, Novara and Lecce the tip to be relegated in that order, while at the top of the table, I reckon Juventus could really push Inter and Milan for the title. So, pick up that pizza and jump onto your couch, or into the stands for some top-drawer football. May the best team win!