Can anyone stop Juventus? Paolo Bandini takes us through his predictions for the new Serie A season...
Who will be crowned champions?
Six days away from the start of the new Serie A season, one or two Juventus fans were beginning to get nervous. Their team had begun their summer as perfectly as anyone could imagine, landing Carlos Tevez for a bargain €9million plus bonuses. Fernando Llorente had already agreed to join on a Bosman. That left room in their budget for another astute signing – that of the young Italy centre-back Angelo Ogbonna from Torino.
On the pitch, though, things were not going quite so smoothly. Going into the preseason Supercoppa against Lazio on Sunday, Juventus had won just two of their six pre-season friendlies. One of those was against a non-league opponent from the sixth tier of Italian football; the other was a penalty shoot-out victory over Sassuolo – a team who had just been promoted to Serie A for the first time in their history.
But exhibition games should never be confused with the real thing. The champions duly reminded us of their qualities by thrashing Lazio, 4-0, in the Supercoppa. Already the best team in the country, Juventus appeared even more dynamic with Tevez leading the line.
It is hard to see which of their rivals is ready to challenge. Milan (5.00) collected more points than any other team in the second-half of last season, but have made only modest additions so far this summer and remain a little soft at the back. Napoli (6.00) finished second in 2012-13 but will look very different following the departure of Edinson Cavani and arrival of Rafael Benítez.
Fiorentina (10.00) will be fascinating to watch after another busy summer in the transfer market. The Viola barely missed out on Champions League football last year, and despite their sale of Stevan Jovetic to Manchester City, the expectation is that they should be even stronger with Mario Gómez, Josip Ilicic, Joaquin, Massimo Ambrosini and a healthy Giuseppe Rossi all thrown into the mix.
Even so, it is hard to imagine them bridging the 17-point gap to Juventus. Antonio Conte’s team remain the obvious choice for the Scudetto at odds of 1.65.
Race for the top three
The battle for Champions League places, on the other hand, could get very interesting indeed. As well as Milan (1.40), Napoli (1.60) and Fiorentina (2.50), Roma (4.00) should also be thrown into the mix. The Giallorossi underachieved last season, but will be working under a new manager in Rudi Garcia and continue to boast a richly talented squad. Kevin Strootman, acquired for €16.5million plus bonuses from PSV, might just be the signing of the summer.
Inter (3.00) could conceivably work their way into this picture as well, but with so many holes to plug, that price looks too short to me. Their neighbours Milan are the safest bet in this market; after that it all gets a little bit blurred.
Last year’s Capocannoniere, Cavani, has traded Naples for Paris. His runner-up, Antonio Di Natale, will turn 36 in October. They scored 29 and 23 league goals respectively. Nobody else managed more than 16.
This too, then, is a wide-open competition. New arrivals Mario Gómez and Gonzalo Higuaín are listed as the second-and third-favourites to finish as top scorer, at odds of 5.50 and 6.50 respectively, yet there is no guarantee that either player will quickly hit their stride. The clichés about defensive Italian football are often exaggerated, yet many foreign strikers have observed that Serie A is a hard place to find goals.
Mario Balotelli, then, is a justifiable favourite at 4.00. In 13 league games for Milan last season he scored 12 goals, and as the team’s penalty taker he will have the opportunity to score many more.
But if you were seeking a long-odds dark horse, Lorenzo Insigne might just be worth a punt at 60.00. He scored just five goals in 37 games for Napoli last year, but began more than half of those on the bench. Even when he did start, he was typically deployed out wide and with a heavy defensive workload by Walter Mazzarri.
Early indications are that Insigne will be afforded a more prominent role under Benítez, and his pre-season form has been sparkling. A strike of the highest order for Italy against Argentina – on what was only his second appearance for the national team – served notice of the 22-year-old’s potential.
Insigne’s name belongs in this category, but so do many others. The 22-year-old Udinese forward Luis Muriel missed a big chunk of last season due to injury, but formed a devastating partnership with Di Natale when healthy. Milan’s Mbaye Niang showed last season that he has the pace, power and timing to be a big hit at this level – if he can just improve his finishing.
Strikers Mauro Icardi and Ishak Belfodil performed well enough at Sampdoria and Parma last season that Inter felt moved to snap up both players in the summer transfer window. But even more fascinating might be the development of their 19-year-old teammate Mateo Kovacic, who made 13 league appearances for the Nerazzurri last year.
A deep-lying playmaker blessed with superior vision and composure beyond his years, Kovacic (pictured above) has been capped four times already by Croatia. Inter hope that he will pull the strings in their midfield for many years to come.
The trap door
All three newly-promoted sides are among the favourites for relegation, but Livorno (1.65) are the only team listed at odds shorter than evens. Their summer transfer campaign is largely to blame. Although talented players have arrived – goalkeeper Francesco Bardi, for instance, was among the stars of this summer’s Under-21 European Championships – too few can boast significant top-flight experience.
The same charge could not be levelled at Hellas Verona, who have picked up Luca Toni, Bosko Jankovic and Massimo Donati, among others. They are listed at 2.50 for the drop – the exact same price as their city rivals Chievo. But I would sooner back the newly-promoted side to go down than their neighbours, who know their way around a relegation scrap.
Sassuolo, playing in the top-flight for the very first time, are well priced at 2.05, not least because they will be playing their home games in an unfamiliar venue. The club was already using someone else’s stadium – Modena’s Stadio Alberto Braga – but will now relocate to the Stadio Città del Tricolore in Reggio Emilia.
But bettors might be wise to look beyond the obvious in this market, and consider Genoa at 8.50. The Rossoblu have a first-time manager at the helm in Fabio Liverani, and, at time of writing, are yet to work out a deal to bring their top-scorer from last season – Marco Borriello – back to the club after his loan from Roma expired.
Genoa have been destabilised for years by constant changes to both the playing and coaching personnel. After a 17th-place finish in 2012-13, this might just be the season when it all finally catches up to them.
The new Serie A season starts this Saturday. Bet on the opening day's games with Unibet.