Controversy, austerity overshadow Serie A kick-off
Published : 25 Aug 2012 04:46:53
Despite the national team's stellar performance at Euro 2012, a cloud hangs over Italy's domestic game as the 2012-13 Serie A season gets underway this weekend.
Italy's run to the European Championship final, even if it did end in a 4-0 defeat to Spain, should have galvanised the game on the peninsula.
But, while pride in the Azzurri has been restored, Serie A is not the force it once was.
These days, Italy's leading clubs struggle to compete financially with their continental rivals, notably Paris Saint-Germain, who have plundered the likes of Milan duo Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, Napoli's Ezequiel Lavezzi and the man seen by many as the next Andrea Pirlo, Pescara's Marco Verratti, this summer.
Then there is the latest match-fixing scandal to hit the Italian game.
As part of the 'Last Bet' or 'calcioscommesse' affair, Atalanta and Siena will both start the season with points deductions, as will promoted duo Sampdoria and Torino.
Of the many individuals punished for their involvement in the scandal, the most notable is Juventus coach Antonio Conte.
The man who led Juve to last season's title without losing a game has been banned for 10 months for failing to disclose knowledge of two fixed matches while at Siena during the 2010-11 season.
Conte can continue to take training and work with the team during the week, but will not be involved on match days.
Instead, assistant Massimo Carrera will fill in, starting with Saturday's home game against Parma.
The Bianconeri remain the team to beat, especially with last season's runners-up Milan having lost Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, as well as Inter-bound Antonio Cassano.
Fans of the Rossoneri have been left looking to the future with a sense of trepidation.
"Juve are clear favourites to defend their title," admits Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri.
"We have a good squad with young players who were here last year and now have a bit more experience and some new faces too, so we should be able to compete for a place in the top three."
Inter endured their worst season in over a decade last time around, finishing sixth and missing out on Champions League qualification, but the Nerazzurri have placed their faith in 36-year-old coach Andrea Stramaccioni and have made some interesting signings.
The signing of Cassano appears quite a coup, while goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, midfielder Walter Gargano and striker Rodrigo Palacio will help give Inter some much needed freshness.
"I think the president and all of us thought that it was the right time to try and build something new," said Stramaccioni.
"This club has gone through a fantastic cycle in the last ten years, but so far ten players have moved on and six have come in. It has been a major change."
Napoli have become a force once again under Walter Mazzarri and won last season's Coppa Italia, but they have lost key players in Lavezzi and Gargano.
However, Roma are expecting big things after the return of outspoken veteran Czech coach Zdenek Zeman, who led Pescara to promotion last season.
He has overseen the arrivals of Italian internationals Federico Balzaretti and Mattia Destro, while popular midfielder Daniele De Rossi decided to stay despite interest from Manchester City.
"We have strengthened our squad more than other clubs. If there was a gap in class, it is now a much smaller one," De Rossi said.
"In terms of staff and players Juve are still stronger than everyone else, but the strongest team does not always win.
"I don't think I can go as far to say that we are going to win the league, but I have a feeling that we will have a great season."
Beyond them, Udinese and Lazio will hope to challenge towards the top again, while the arrival of Vincenzo Montella as coach has left Fiorentina fans optimistic for the season ahead.
Fixtures (kick-off times GMT):
Fiorentina v Udinese (1600), Juventus v Parma (1845)
Milan v Sampdoria (1600), Siena v Torino, Roma v Catania, Pescara v Inter, Palermo v Napoli, Atalanta v Lazio, Genoa v Cagliari, Chievo v Bologna (all 1845)