By Sean Sedacca
Generally speaking, Italians are not early risers. Very rarely do they schedule anything important for the morning hours, preferring to ease into their day and pickup momentum as it moves along.
The Serie A championship is a fairly accurate reflection of this national tendency. Analysis of and reactions to the first two or three matches of the season are always accompanied by caveats pertaining to teams and players not yet up to speed, and without a full 90 minutes in their legs. Additionally, in a nod to procrastination, most teams don’t seem to get serious until the final frenzied rush during the last day of the transfer window is over.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the team that seems the most organized and prepared for the upcoming season is Juventus. There is a reason they have won the last five scudetti without really breaking a sweat, and isn’t simply a case of having the biggest budget to work with. The team from Torino has made a concerted effort to mimic the super clubs found in other European leagues, and their efforts have borne considerable fruit.
Meanwhile, the other two “big” teams in Italy, Inter Milan and AC Milan, have only managed to fall further into chaos. Throw in the likes of Napoli and Roma, who know of nothing else but chaos, and smaller sides like Lazio and Fiorentina that are well organized but under budgeted, and you have a very high probability of Juventus making it six titles in a row.
The second and third place finishes from last season were the aforementioned Napoli and Roma, and during the summer Juve managed to place a dagger directly into both of their hearts by signing away both teams’ the best players. Gonzalo Higuain broke the longstanding record for most goals in a Serie A season, and Juventus snapped him up. Miralem Pjanic was considered the most talented player on a Roma roster chock-full of slightly overrated names, and he too was snatched away to put on a white and black jersey. As mentioned, the transfer window is still open, but neither Napoli nor Roma have done much to replace their lost stars. In Naples there is some small glimmer of hope that Manolo Gabbiadini can take over from Higuain, but those are very big shoes to fill. Roma’s coach Luciano Spalletti was quoted as saying that he thinks the pairing of Kevin Strootman and Leandro Paredes more than makes up for Pjanic’s absence, but that very much remains to be seen.
In terms of pure talent, Inter are the only squad that have the potential to keep up with Juventus, especially after the recent transfer of the excellent Antonio Candreva from Lazio, but the upheaval and sudden dismissal of Roberto Mancini is evidence of the complete lack of organization that has reigned at the club since Erick Thohir took over from Massimo Moratti. You can add the fact that when the talented but painfully immature Mauro Icardi is wearing the captain’s armband, you pretty much abandon all hope of accomplishing anything important during the season.
Not that things are much better with city rivals, AC Milan. Some extremely bizarre personnel decisions in recent years have left the once glorious club with a seemingly incredible dearth of talent in its roster, and the very recent transfer of ownership from Silvio Berlusconi to a Chinese investment group makes it very unlikely that the situation will be turned around in the near future.
So where does this leave us?
As has been the case in recent years, the most interesting story lines will revolve around the fight for the other two Champions League spots, and to a lesser extent the Europa League spots. Napoli is probably the strongest contender for second place, having kept the rest of their side relatively intact after the departure of Higuain, and with the team fully believing in coach Maurizio Sarri from the very start, which wasn’t necessarily the case last season. The leaders in the race for third place should be Roma and Inter, but neither side look likely to find the consistency necessary to fend of competition from Lazio, Fiorentina and Sassuolo.
Yes, Sassuolo. If you aren’t already familiar with this upstart side, it may be time to give them a look. With such a high level of tactical competency in Serie A, we aren’t going to see anything akin to Leicester City’s demonstration of just how laughable Premier League play can be at times, but Sassuolo have assembled a very nice group of young, talented Italian players that are still coming into their own. Their sixth place finish last season (just six points behind Inter in fourth) was just a first step, and their attractive brand of football should make them one of the most enjoyable teams to watch every week.
Lazio, under head coach Simone Inzaghi, are another team that has the potential to exceed expectations. Despite the fallout from the ludicrous non-deal with Marcelo Bielsa, the squad looked particularly focused during the pre-season and performed quite well under Inzaghi when he stepped in as an interim coach for the final matches of last season. The signing of Ciro Immobile has given them the true striker that they so sorely needed after Klose left, and he will be flanked by a interesting group of attacking wingers in Keita Balde, Felipe Anderson and Ricardo Kishna. All three are young talents with the potential to explode into superstars. They will also have their best defender Stefan de Vrij back after he missed all of last year with an injury, and experienced players like Lucas Biglia, Marco Parolo and Senad Lulic anchoring the midfield. If nothing else, they will be another entertaining team to watch, defying the stereotypes about boring Serie A play.
August is vacation month in Italy. The entire country shuts down and heads to the beach (really, America, you should think about it), and everything, no matter how important, can wait until September. So, in keeping with this tradition, we will hold of on any serious predictions until Italy wakes up, has a coffee, and gets back to work. Think of these first two rounds as antipasti, and little else.
Follow Sean Sedacca on Twitter @LazialeaNY