Bandini: Juventus still the strongest side on paper as Old Lady begin Serie A title defence


Juventus v Cagliari, Saturday 5pm

Are the champions truly as vulnerable as they appear? The departures of Leonardo Bonucci and Dani Alves had raised questions about Juventus’s capacity to dominate Serie A for a seventh consecutive season even before they were beaten - and, more worryingly, outplayed - by Lazio in the pre-season Supercoppa. When Gazzetta dello Sport surveyed their journalists this week, a majority nominated Napoli to win the Scudetto.

On paper, though, the Old Lady still boasts the strongest squad in the division. Juventus are hardly short of options at centre-back, with Mehdi Benatia, Andrea Barzagli and Daniele Rugani competing for Bonucci’s old spot, and ought to be stronger up front with Douglas Costa and Federico Bernardeschi thrown into the mix.

Certainly you would expect them to have too much for Cagliari, a club wrestling with personnel issues of its own. Marco Borriello, the Sardinians’ leading scorer in 2016-17, is seeking a move away after falling out with manager Massimo Rastelli, and is not expected to feature this weekend. The veteran leadership of Bruno Alves will also be missed in defence following his move to Rangers.

Rastelli is not a manager known for his caution. Cagliari conceded 76 goals last season: more than any other team outside the bottom two. If he perceives a weakness in Juventus’s new-look defence then he will likely encourage his team to attack it - even if that means exposing his own.

Score prediction: Juventus 3-1 Cagliari (12.50)

First goalscorer prediction: Paulo Dybala (3.75)

Safe bet: Over 3.5 goals (2.56)


 


 

Verona v Napoli, Saturday, 7.45pm

If Napoli are indeed to challenge Juventus, then they could do with making a better start than they have in either of the past two campaigns. They opened with a 2-1 defeat to Sassuolo in 2015-16, and followed that up with a 2-2 draw away to newly-promoted Pescara last year.

Perhaps they will benefit from having begun their campaign early this time around, shaking off the rust as they beat Nice 2-0 in the first leg of their Champions League playoff on Wednesday. Then again, manager Maurizio Sarri has indicated that he will rotate his team in order to keep players fresh for next week’s return game. To what extent remains to be seen.

Runners-up in Serie B last season, Verona have made some impressive additions in the transfer market, and look well-equipped to stay up as a result. Alessio Cerci and Martin Cáceres both arrive with points to prove after lost spells in the wilderness at Atlético Madrid and Southampton, but each has thrived in this league before. Daniele Verde, on loan from Roma, is an intriguing forward prospect who is due a shot at starting top-flight games.

He and Cerci should line up on either flank, with Giampaolo Pazzini in the middle. The former Milan, Inter and Fiorentina striker grabbed 23 goals in the second tier last season, and still appears to have plenty of gas left in the tank.

With a player like that in the side, it’s no wonder that Verona prefer to play on the front foot, and they scored more first-half goals than any other team in Serie B last season. Napoli were joint-top in the same category for Serie A.

Score prediction: Verona 1-2 Napoli (8.50)

First goalscorer prediction: Giampaolo Pazzini (10.50)

Safe bet: Both teams to score in the first half (4.60)



 

Atalanta v Roma, Sunday 5pm

Atalanta were Serie A’s great overachievers last season, soaring above the likes of Lazio, Milan and Inter to break the top four for the first time in their history. Repeat the trick this time around, and they will earn a place in Champions League qualifying.

The Bergamo club’s rise, though, was built on a core of young players who have since become targets for the nation’s richest. Roberto Gagliardini joined Inter in the winter, before Franck Kessié and Andrea Conti jumped ship to Milan during the current window. Now Atalanta’s other starting wing-back, Leonardo Spinazzola, looks set to return to Juventus - from whom he was supposed to stay on loan until 2018.

Will they have enough left over to compete with clubs such as Roma? Perhaps it is an unhelpful example. The Giallorossi finished second in May but they, too, look to have lost ground over the summer, with Mohamed Salah and Antonio Rudiger both allowed to walk out the door without any big-name replacement for either.

Throw in the fact that they are working under a new manager, Eusebio Di Francesco, who - while talented - arrives from a far lower-pressure environment at Sassuolo, and you can understand why fans might feel a sense of unease. Roma lost the corresponding fixture last November, and it would not shock me to see them drop points again.

Score prediction: Atalanta 2-1 Roma (11.0)

First goalscorer prediction: Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez (8.00)

Safe bet: Draw no bet: home win (2.32)



Crotone v Milan, Sunday 7.45pm

Pumped up with more than €200m worth of transfer investment, Milan could start as many as eight new players this weekend. How will the likes of Bonucci, Conti, Kessié, Hakan Çalhanoğlu and André Silva slot together? So far our only clue comes from the Europa League, where they battered Shkëndija 6-0 on Thursday night.

Crotone will present a sterner challenge than the Macedonians, but the contrast in resources between these sides is still glaring. The hosts’ most expensive summer signing, Oliver Kragl, cost €400,000 to acquire from Frosinone.

Davide Nicola did have Crotone punching well above their weight towards the end of last season, as they took 20 points from their final nine games to escape relegation, and few opponents had it easy at the Stadio Ezio Scida. Milan themselves were held to a draw there in April.

But the sale of top scorer Diego Falcinelli leaves a gap in Crotone’s starting XI that will not easily be filled. Ante Budimir, whose 16 goals helped fire the club to promotion from Serie B in 2015-16, has returned on loan after spending last season with Sampdoria, but he failed to find the net in 10 league appearances with the Blucerchiati.

Score prediction: Crotone 0-2 Milan (8.00)

First goalscorer prediction: Leonardo Bonucci (23.0)

Safe bet: Away win (1.55)