Eric Giardini unleashes his Serie A Preview
We’ve finally arrived.
After missing the opening weekend due to a strike between the 20 Serie A clubs and the players’ association, a new contract was agreed to on Monday allowing Serie A to begin this weekend. The curtain-raising match sees defending champions AC Milan host Lazio at the San Siro. The new agreement, which expires in June 2012, does not address the main sticking points between the two sides. The players’ union remains unhappy with the fact that clubs are able to force players into transfers in their contract’s final year, thus not allowing them to move for free once their contract expires. The players are also unhappy with the practice of coaches forcing unwanted players to train away from the first team. On the other side, clubs want players to pay the new solidarity tax imposed by the Italian government on high earners. The players, obviously, are not too keen on this idea.
But all of that, now, is neither here nor there and this isn’t about the strike.
This is about the passion, the flair, the stereotypical defensive struggles and the well-documented histrionics. The Italian top flight is full of history and tradition and the 2011-12 season, by all indications, will be more of the same.
It has been a long summer so I’m here to catch you up on the latest from the peninsula and give you a little preview on what to look for this campaign.
• Another scandal? What else is new?
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. On June 16 current and former players were arrested for alleged match fixing across all three professional leagues in Italy. Overall, 18 matches were under investigation – including the Serie A match between Inter and Lecce (which Inter won 1-0) and a number of matches involving newly promoted Atalanta. A number of clubs, mostly in the lower leagues, received point deductions and fines to begin the new season. Atalanta was perhaps the hardest hit receiving a six-point deduction and their captain, Cristiano Doni, has been suspended from all soccer activities for 3.5 years for his role in the scandal. What was already going to be a difficult road to remain in the top flight just became an almost impossible task.
• Loss of Champions League Spot
The loss of Italy’s fourth Champions League spot to the Bundesliga means that now only the top three will qualify for the competition and the fourth and fifth place clubs will qualify for the Europa League. In a league where the top seven or eight clubs are all strong sides capable qualifying and doing well in Europe, the fact that a club like Inter, Napoli, Juventus, or Roma will miss out on Europe all together is troubling. Expect the battles for spots 3-5 to be more competitive than the race for the scudetto.
• Americans Abroad
As has already been discussed here at length, a new ownership group headed by Bostonian Thomas Di Benedetto officially took charge of Roma in the middle of August and has followed through on his promises to revamp the club. After appointing an entire new front office staff and a new manager, he has done something that the previous regime couldn’t (or wouldn’t). He spent money on transfers. With an estimated €78M spent, expectations are high in the capital.
Another American has made his way to Italy. Michael Bradley is the new man in Verona as he left his German nightmare and headed south to Chievo to try to get his career back on track. Here’s to hoping he finds his footing, and minutes, in Italy.
• The Old Lady Awakens
After two disappointing seasons for Juventus and with the opening of the first privately owned stadium in Italy, something needed to change in Turin. The best way to do this was to spend and spend a ton. The most supported club in Italy responded and spent approximately €87M on players in an attempt to revamp the lineup. Longtime Milan playmaker Andrea Pirlo joins big money acquisitions Arturo Vidal, Stephan Lichtsteiner, Eljero Elia, and Mirko Vučinić. Much like in Rome, expectations in Turin will be high and the club cannot afford to miss out on Europe again.
• The City of Milan Remains Relatively Quiet
There wasn’t much activity in Milan over the summer. For the Rossoneri, the summer was surprisingly quiet. There were no big money splashes that we are used to seeing. Instead, quality was brought in to cover areas of weakness. Defenders Philippe Mexés and Taye Taiwo were brought in on free transfers to help shore up an aging and often injured backline. Alberto Aquilani was loaned to Milan from Liverpool to provide some creativity to a midfield with an abundance of grit. The potentially key signing for the club is Stephan El-Shaarawy. He arrives to Milan on a co-ownership deal from Genoa after spending last season on loan to Padova in Serie B – where he almost single-handedly carried the club to promotion. The buzz around El-Shaarawy is eerily similar to that of Adel Taarabt at Queens Park Rangers and he will be one to keep an eye on.
Inter Milan were also quiet, however for different reasons. While AC Milan stood pat due mainly to the strength of their squad, it appears Inter were quiet for financial reasons. With Samuel Eto’o’s sale to Russian club Anzhi, Inter was able to come closer to meeting the new UEFA financial fair play rules, when/if those go into effect. With the new requirements limiting annual losses for clubs, the massive transfer fee ($40M) and saving about $75M in wages through 2014 will help meet these requirements. Inter wasn’t all quiet and did find a suitable replacement in Diego Forlán for a fraction of the price of Eto’o.
What to watch for
While I’ll be looking to see how Milan handles being the defending champion with everyone gunning for them, especially their cross-town neighbors, another team worth keeping an eye on will be Napoli. With their unusual 3-4-3 lineup, with the outside midfielders covering a lot of space, Napoli finished in a somewhat surprising third place last season and are looking to build on that. New additions Inler and Goran Pandev (on loan from Inter) added to their talented attacking trident of Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Levezzi, and Marek Hamšík, so expect free-flowing soccer in Naples. The biggest question for them will be how they handle their difficult Champions League responsibilities in addition to maintaining their league form.
1 AC Milan
3 Inter Milan
With the loss of the fourth Champions League spot, the competition for the top three spots will be tight. I think Milan is talented enough and has enough depth up and down their roster and will successfully defend their title. The experience that Napoli gained during last season, and their moves made this summer, will pay off this season as they finish ahead of Inter. Inter has a great deal riding on Forlán and the young Argentine Ricardo Álvarez – neither of which has any Serie A experience. The money that Juventus spent will help them barely finish ahead of Roma, who I think are a year away from fully buying into the Luis Enrique experiment.
Looking at the bottom of the table, although Lecce was able to survive and remain in Serie A last season, I think they drop down to Serie B for 2012-2013. History shows that at least one club that makes the jump usually takes the immediate plunge back down and this year I think we’ll have two. Novara and Atlanta, who won’t be able to overcome starting in negative points, will join Lecce in Serie B for next season.