Monday, 20 August 2007

Serie A 2007-08: Calcio Renaissance

After a traumatic chapter in calcio history, all is well once more as the peninsula’s giants retake their rightful place amongst the elite. Here's a look forward to the most mouth-watering season in recent memory.

The summer is always a frustrating time for any football fan, but last year there was an even greater sense of restlessness. With Juventus, Napoli and Genoa all preparing for a Cadetti campaign, Serie A had the look of an unfinished novel and it proved to be equally unsatisfying. Now there’s a feeling of rebirth as for the first time in years the biggest sides in Italy will all be competing for the nation’s biggest prize.

Indeed, not even Lega chief Antonio Matarrese’s misplaced comments that last season’s Serie B was “a script that had already been written” could spoil the party. Surely such sentiments would be less than enthusiastically received by the likes of Piacenza, Rimini and Brescia who were a whisker away from claiming play-off spots.

It is important that we spare a thought for Calciopoli’s forgotten victims. Juventus’ appearance in the second tier was a cruel handicap for less illustrious sides with top-flight aspirations. The Bianconeri were almost certain to reserve one of the automatic promotion spots, leaving the rest of the pack to compete for a single spot. However, while the expected sides did triumph in the end, it was far from smooth sailing.

Juve struggled at times to adapt to playing on poor pitches against fiercely motivated sides looking to write their names in the history books and willing to break some ankles to do so. Napoli and Genoa fans were made to sweat until the final half hour of the season, when a Triestina equaliser at Piacenza opened the door for a mutually beneficial stalemate at Marassi.

Cruel as the conclusion to the campaign was for Piacenza, who fought bravely despite the loss of injured star striker Daniele Cacia, nobody can deny that Genoa and Napoli were a class above. Under the astute guidance of Gian Piero Gasperini, the Grifoni’s success was based on a formidable attack, but in truth the Rossoblu simply had too many top-class players to be denied – Adailton, Omar Milanetto, Marco Di Vaio, Domenico Criscito, Julio Cesar Leon and Mirko Gasparetti deserve top-flight football. Not only did the expected performers deliver, but there were also some surprises such as goalkeeper Fernando Rubinho’s commanding presence and Gaetano De Rosa’s eye for goal.

In the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, Edy Reja withstood the weight of expectations and led the Azzurri to a second consecutive promotion. Reja’s man-management skills were clear for all to see as he inspired the best from his men when it really mattered. The defensive, disciplined Azzurri stood in stark contrast to their Genovese rivals, but achieved the same result.

While Gennaro Iezzo was like a portcullis between the posts, Paolo Cannavaro could have been mistaken for his brother. Mariano Bogliacino, Francesco Montervino, Fabio Gatti and Maurizio Domizzi proved to be shrewd signings who will surely be able to compete in Serie A, while Emanuele Calaio’ and Roberto De Zerbi were impressive. The fact that Napoli secured their return to the spotlight on the 20th anniversary of their Scudetto triumph added a further sprinkling of magic to the celebrations.

Just as Juventus, Napoli and Genoa have spent their time in Purgatory and arrived at the Promised Land, so has Serie A. For the first time since 1994-95, the top Division has its full complement of derbies and almost every side to have won a Scudetto on its fixture list. It is fair to say that the only true absentees are Verona as Pro Vercelli, Casale and Novara have been languishing in the depths for years. Almost all the biggest cities in Italy will be in the spotlight with the exception of Bologna, Bari and Venice – although the latter has never been a football hotbed.

So, who will be the winners and losers in this eagerly anticipated season? Everywhere you look there are fascinating questions to be answered. Can Milan challenge Inter without a handicap to overcome? Can Juventus compete for the title? Will Lazio and Fiorentina repeat last season’s success? How will Walter Mazzarri fare at Sampdoria – a side with bigger expectations?

Can Empoli defy the odds again? Who are the real Catania – the side that flirted with the Champions League places in the first part of the season or the team that escaped the drop by the skin of their teeth? Will Udinese rediscover themselves under Pasquale Marino?

The only certainty is that after a bleak period of scandal, exiled giants and low-level football, Italian soccer has a great chance to catch up with their English and Spanish counterparts and rediscover its place as one of the top Leagues in the world. Bentornato calcio.

Source: Lorenzo Zacchetti (Eurocalcio) / C4 Football Italia

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