Friday, 21 August 2009

[Preview] Serie A - Week 1

Italian football is gearing up for a crucial season with clubs looking to challenge for domestic honours and to make amends in Europe.

Inter - Serie A champions 2009Defending champions Inter are favourites to win a fifth consecutive Serie A title, with Juventus seen as the most likely to push Jose Mourinho's team close.

For Inter in particular and Italy's top clubs in general, Europe is the big test, with teams clearly expected to improve on last season's performances - when neither Inter, Juventus, Roma or Fiorentina made it past the last 16 in the UEFA Champions League.

Udinese went further than any other Italian team in Europe, losing to Werder Bremen in the UEFA Cup quarter-finals. AC Milan, Napoli and Sampdoria had already been knocked out in earlier rounds.

This season, Inter, Juventus and Milan have qualified for the Champions League proper, Fiorentina will join them there if they beat Portuguese side Sporting Lisbon in the play-offs, whilst Genoa, Roma and Coppa Italia winners Lazio are entered into the play-offs for the UEFA Europa League.

The international credibility of the league certainly needs to continue improving following the aftermath of the Calciopoli scandal, and recent years of dwindling crowds and declining standards.

Serie A's image has suffered further damage in the off-season with two of its biggest stars both decamping to Spain's Primera Liga; AC Milan's Brazilian playmaker Ricardo Kaka joining Real Madrid for 67million euros and Inter's Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic moving to Barcelona for over 50million euros.

Whilst Barcelona striker Samuel Eto'o arrived for free as part of the Ibrahimovic deal, there was continued embarrassment across the peninsula that the league's top stars were leaving and not being replaced.

Inter fans have reason to be optimistic with the arrivals of Diego Milito and Thiago Motta from Genoa, and defender Lucio from Bayern Munich.

The Nerazzurri begin the defence of their title against Bari on Sunday evening eager to make amends for their 2-1 Supercoppa defeat by Lazio in Beijing nearly a fortnight ago.

Despite the talent in the Inter side, Italy coach Marcello Lippi, who has a crucial year coming up himself with the FIFA World Cup next summer, has predicted that it will be his former club Juventus and not Inter who will win the Scudetto.

Lippi's prediction infuriated Mourinho, a coach who is easily drawn into controversy and expect plenty more from the self-styled 'Special One' in his second year in Serie A.

Ciro Ferrara, who replaced Claudio Ranieri on a caretaker basis at the end of last season and was appointed full-time coach of Juve earlier this summer, will lead his men against Chievo on Sunday evening.

Juve have looked impressive in pre-season with top summer signing Diego having already shown his value.

The arrival of Felipe Melo from Fiorentina has strengthened the Bianconeri's midfield line following the retirement of veteran Pavel Nedved.

AC Milan were unable to lure all of their summer targets but under new coach Leonardo, they still aim to challenge Inter and Juve for top spot.

It remains to be seen how Milan will adapt without their long-time tactician, Carlo Ancelotti, who has taken the reins of Chelsea.

The Rossoneri will make the journey to Tuscany to meet Siena on Saturday night, but will be without summer signing Klaas-Jan Huntelaar who is suspended for one match from his short spell at Real Madrid.

Fiorentina open the new Serie A campaign at Bologna on Saturday and will once again hope to push for a place in the top four.

Roma are expecting a tough opening game at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris where Genoa await them. The Romans suffered a 3-1 defeat at the Grifoni last term, a result they hope to improve on as they chase a return to the Champions League next season.

The match between Palermo and Napoli at La Favorita also promises to be a fiercely contested game between two sides hoping to crack the top six this season.

Both have been heavily involved in the transfer market this campaign and a Europa League spot is the least they expect at the end of the season.

Atalanta coach Angelo Gregucci will be looking for a more successful stint in his second Serie A coaching job after a disappointing spell at the helm of Lecce five years ago.

Gregucci, whose side travel to Rome to meet Lazio this weekend, was sacked by Lecce just five weeks into the 2005/06 campaign.

Promoted outfit Parma face a challenge from the start when they meet an Udinese side that only lost three of their 19 games at the Stadio Friuli last season.

Coppa Italia finalists Sampdoria will make the journey to Sicily to meet Catania hoping to have a better start than they did last term when they failed to win any of their first four games.

Play-off winners Livorno will be hoping top summer signing Cristiano Lucarelli can make an impact immediately when they entertain last season's surprise package Cagliari in Leghorn.

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