The first matches of the new Italian season are nearly upon us, and, without further ado, here's what's going to happen in the upcoming season:
The Big Four: I think it's fairly safe to say that the Scudetto will reside in Milan come next May. However, it has the potential to be a tight race between Inter and AC. Inter, of course, have won the title three times on the trot, but there are enormous asterisks beside this seemingly impressive feat. To begin with, three years ago they were awarded the title after the season, when Juventus got in trouble for match-fixing. They duly won the title the proper way the following season, but that was with Juventus in Serie B, and AC Milan suffering a point penalty that made it impossible for them to compete. Last season, Inter looked to have the whole thing wrapped up by February, only to collapse and need a last-day win to fend off Roma. They got said win, but it was relief rather than ecstasy at the end of the season, and the manager was duly fired... and replaced with Jose Mourinho, who's done nothing but win championships everywhere he's managed. They've not done much in terms of player acquisitions, with today's purchase of Portuguese midfielder Riccardo Quaresma probably the biggest move, but with Mourinho in charge they're probably pretty safe standing pat.
AC Milan, on the other hand, could do anything but maintain the status quo. Last season was flat-out embarassing for the Rossoneri. They were unceremoniously dumped out of Champions' League competition in front of their home fans by Arsenal, and compounded that by being overtaken in Serie A by Fiorentina late in the season and ending up in fifth place. So, they'll contest the UEFA Cup this season, a great achievement for many teams, but a humiliation for Mr. Berlusconi, who's gotten used to seeing his boys in the Champions' League every season. AC responded to last season's disaster in a fairly predictable way; they hurled money at the problem, bringing in Ronaldinho, Mathieu Flamini, and Philippe Senderos, among others (the latter two, interestingly, were acquired from Arsenal; if you can't beat 'em...). With Ronaldinho, Kaká, and Pato up front (and Andriy Shevchenko subbing in, presumably), they're going to score lots and lots of goals, but there remain questions about their ability to prevent the opposition doing likewise. The error-prone Dida has been replaced in goal by Christian Abbiati, and Senderos will help, but the Milan defence is slow, a bit on the old side, and as a result likely to be vulnerable. As a last note, I could not possibly write about AC Milan without mentioning my very favourite Italian player, Gennaro Gattuso. And how annoying is it that he plays for AC Milan? Very. I would dearly love to see him in a Napoli shirt, but it seems that he will finish his career at AC.
The other two members of the big group, Juventus and Roma, don't look likely to be able to mount a title challenge this season. Roma are probably the better of the two, and the acquisition of Brazilian striko Julio Baptista means that they won't have to rely on the aging and injury-prone Francesco Totti as much as in previous years. Juventus, on the other hand, haven't made any really significant changes to their lineup, and will charge forward with last year's group. This is a bad thing, if you're a Juventus supporter, since last year's group is almost to a man past the point where a being a year older is a good thing for a professional soccer player. Also, Gianluigi Buffon looked mortal at this year's Euro championship, and if he doesn't return to his previous best-goalkeeper-in-the-world form, it's going to be a long season for La Vecchia Signora.
The Challengers: The best of the group outside the Big Four is undoubtedly Fiorentina, and if the Tuscan club stays ambitious (there is every sign that they intend to do just that), we could very soon be talking about a Big Five. They've bought very intelligently over the summer, and will be expecting to match last season's 4th-place finish (and accompanying Champions' League qualification) and possibly even better it.
It will also be worth keeping an eye on Napoli this coming season. They finished a worthy 8th last season, their first season back in Serie A in some time, and have managed to work their way into the UEFA Cup for this season. Last season also saw them defeat Inter, Juventus, and Fiorentina, and lay an epic thrashing on AC Milan in a game that AC really needed to win (it ended 3-1 to Napoli, a scoreline which greatly flattered AC Milan). However, they're going to have to learn how to pick up victories on the road; last year they won only three times outside of Naples. They have been active in the transfer market, and have harkened back to the glory years of Diego Maradona by stocking their front line with Argentinians. Napoli are probably not yet at the point where challenging for a Champions' League berth is likely, but they should improve on last season's results.
As for the other challengers, Sampdoria and Udinese are likely to be sniffing about, come sempre. Neither team did anything particularly stunning in the transfer market, but they're both solid, well-established teams, fully capable of taking points off the big boys every once in awhile. And is there anyone else capable of crashing the top eight? Well, Torino and Lazio, possibly. However, keep an eye also on newly promoted Bologna. They fended off an ownership bid by an American company this summer, and apparently their current owners have opened the chequebooks to improve the team. The seem to have spent the summer plundering the South American leagues, and if those new signings work out, Bologna will be good.
Palermo, whom I would normally count amongst this group, will likely start the season with eight new players in the starting lineup. Even if they all turn out to be good (unlikely), it will take them awhile to gel as a team. I do not see Palermo going anywhere above a comfortable mid-table position.
The Rest: It's much of muchness from here on down the table; there isn't a lot of difference betweeen the various clubs down here, and they're all hoping merely to survive the Serie A season. And who, pray tell, is not going to make it? Well, Siena have managed to ward off relegation for a number of seasons now, but I think the clock is going to run out on them. It's always a bad sign when you're buying up other teams' backup players and sticking them into your starting lineup. Also in trouble are Catania, who failed to win even one game on the road last season, and just barely avoided a trip to Serie B. The third victim could be one of a number of clubs, but, sadly, the Kobold seers are looking at Reggina, mostly because the Calabrian club has had a rough time this summer in the transfer market.
All right then! Here's a reasonable facsimile of what the table should look like at the end of this season: