Serie A preview: Will Inter or Napoli dethrone Juventus?
Newcomers Aaron Ramsey, Romelu Lukaku and Franck Ribery join the cast for what should be a fascinating season in Italy...
By Tommaso Fiore
Last Updated: 23/08/19 6:11pm
Serie A may have sounded like an old broken record for the last eight years, but the ultimate quest to overthrow Juventus' dominance has begun in earnest this summer, writes Tommaso Fiore.
Maintaining its tradition as the last major European league to kick off its season, on Saturday, three of Italy's best managers will lock horns in what could potentially turn out to be one of the most thrilling run-ins in a decade.
With Aaron Ramsey, Romelu Lukaku and other Premier League departees striving to impress, Atalanta's maiden appearance in the Champions League, Mario Balotelli's emotional homecoming to Brescia, Cristiano Ronaldo's hunt for yet more records and a race for three European spots involving as many as six sides, there's plenty to be excited about in Italian football this season.
Here, we look ahead at the major talking points ahead of the new campaign…
Will Champions League-focused Juventus crack at home?
Even after one of the boldest managerial shake-ups that the club has overseen in a decade, Juventus are still the team to beat. The sporting and economical gap separating them from the chasing pack remains massive - last year their €220m gross wage bill was €80m bigger than closest spenders AC Milan's, according to La Gazzetta Dello Sport.
The club moved for a handful of targeted signings early in the window to provide back-up to Ronaldo, empowered by Sarri as "the only player with the license to be free on the pitch". The arrivals of Merih Demiral and Matthijs De Ligt - one of Europe's most coveted central defenders - provide both talent and potential in an otherwise conservative back line, while Adrien Rabiot and Aaron Ramsey represent a big plus in terms of quality in midfield.
However, the club as a whole will surely be distracted by the search for the winning Champions League formula. It's no secret Juventus are going all out for European glory - and in the past it looked like Serie A fixtures were merely a hindrance to their Champions League focus. Add to that Ronaldo's apparent tendency to prioritise those midweek games, and that could be the recipe for disaster.
Sarri's appointment means Juventus will undergo a complete overhaul in its playing style: his dynamic, fast-paced and free-flowing philosophy is polar opposite to Max Allegri's functional but effective football. The club are not new to breaks in tradition - they have steered away from their historic logo and striped kit in successive years - but however the season will pan out, it remains a huge gamble to put a manager so shy in silverware into a dugout so trophy-oriented.
If successful, 'Sarri-ball' will make for a different style of title defence to what previously seen, although what happened at Chelsea suggests it might take time to re-educate its interpreters.
Who will emerge as Juventus' challengers?
The mysterious identity of the 'anti-Juventus' side to take on the Turin superpowers is the guessing game that Italian fans have been playing annually for almost a decade. The answer has varied from time to time: it was AC Milan first, then Roma and Napoli. This season, it looks increasingly likely that sleeping giants Inter Milan will rise up to the challenge.
Chairman Steven Zhang, 28, and sporting director Giuseppe Marotta - 62, previously at Juventus - made an odd couple when they were both appointed in autumn. But they wasted no time in investing big and smart during the summer. Inter pulled together two of Italy's brightest talents in Nicolo Barella and Stefano Sensi alongside international big names like Romelu Lukaku. Diego Godin, meanwhile, will slot in beautifully with Stefan De Vrij and Milan Skriniar in a three-man defence.
But Inter's - if not the league's - top signing was coach Antonio Conte, the same man who broke the Milan sides' duopoly and ushered in Juve's winning cycle with four consecutive Serie A titles upon his arrival in 2011. Conte brings in a proven winning mentality and relentlessness - he wasn't afraid to exile last season's star men Mauro Icardi and Radja Nainggolan because of their misdemeanours. The feeling is that he will mould Inter around his first Juventus template and will stop at nothing in pursuit of silverware.
However, it will be Sarri's former side Napoli to lead the chase once again. They have been flirting with success for years, ending up in second place in four occasions, three of them in the last four seasons. In 2018 they sparked the closest run-in in recent years, as a 1-0 win at Juventus with four games to go really looked like setting up a tense finale - only for that to be cancelled out by their 3-0 loss to Fiorentina the following week.
Out of the three title contenders, Napoli are the only side to have retained their manager over the summer. They will be counting on Carlo Ancelotti's title-winning pedigree and will look to exploit any starting hiccups from Inter and Juve during the first months. Hirving Lozano's addition adds serious depth up front, and the signing of one of the league's best-proven defenders - Kostas Manolas from rivals Roma - joins Kalidou Koulibaly in arguably Serie A's best centre-back pairing on paper.
This, in a competition which has constantly been won by whoever concedes the fewest goals, is of paramount importance.
Ribery, Nainggolan and Balotelli - who moved this summer?
After Brescia, Verona and Lecce replaced Chievo, Empoli and Frosinone from Serie B, a transfer merry-go-round of coaches took centre stage this summer.
Four out of last season's top six opted for a change in management - only Ancelotti and Gian Piero Gasperini, who took Atalanta from mid-table anonymity to the Champions League, kept their jobs. Gasperini responded by signing former Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel and bolstering his attack - Italy's best last year - with Luis Muriel, a revelation on loan at Fiorentina.
Roma have had another summer of revival. The partnership between Champions League heroes Monchi and Eusebio Di Francesco has been ousted and replaced by director Gianluca Petrachi and head coach Paulo Fonseca, from Torino and Shakhtar Donetsk respectively. Petrachi was impressive in a string of signings including Atalanta's Gianluca Mancini and Juventus' Leonardo Spinazzola as well as in negotiations for new contracts signed by Edin Dzeko and Nicolo Zaniolo, while Fonseca's hard-work-and-dedication philosophy looks to have restored a feel-good factor around the environment.
Former Sampdoria coach Marco Giampaolo took over as AC Milan boss and, with the club thrown out of the Europa League for FFP violations, it seems like this is year zero for the seven-time Champions League winners. Two summers ago the club shelled out £160m on a squad overhaul, but this time around the club was wise to avoid more reckless spending as Ivan Gazidis replaced deadwood players with Lille's Rafael Leao, Real Madrid's Theo Hernandez and Empoli's Ismael Bennacer.
Other major summer transfers include Franck Ribery's two-year deal at Fiorentina, Juventus' move for Manchester City's Danilo and two emotional homecomings in Mario Balotelli to Brescia and Radja Nainggolan to Cagliari.
New signings to watch
Aaron Ramsey - The former Arsenal player might not be rushed into action straight away, but is poised to take up a big role in attacking midfield. Sarri is likely to employ Miralem Pjanic in a Jorginho-like role that was key during his spells at Napoli and Chelsea, and that should allow Ramsey to enjoy more freedom in his box-to-box duties and provide more support to Ronaldo and company.
Romelu Lukaku - The Belgium striker is the embodiment of Conte's ideal forward. He's physical, can hold up the play to feed in midfielders and is prolific in front of goal: the former Manchester United striker might have really found his niche in the Italian game.
Mario Balotelli - Although (in true Balotelli style) he will miss the first four games of the season due to a red card with Marseille, he will be Brescia's talisman for their survival hopes. Without the pressure of playing for a big club and enjoying the fan-favourite treatment and support of a loving fan base, the whole competition will keep their eyes peeled on a prime-nearing 'Super Mario'.
Kostas Manolas - Napoli's €36m swoop for Manolas was audacious but had a purpose: to give Koulibaly the perfect match and fix the woes that arose with now-departed Raul Albiol in the second half of last season. The pair have the potential to become one of the most solid defensive partnerships in modern Serie A history.
Matthijs de Ligt - Brought in for retiring Andrea Barzagli, the young and fearless central defender already learned a lot during his time as Ajax captain and shares many traits with Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. Under their wing, he can only but thrive into one of the finest defensive players in Europe.
Luis Muriel - There are two versions of Muriel: the inconsistent forward with raw talent who gravitated across Italy and Spain but never fully flourished, and the unplayable, free-scoring poacher that fired Fiorentina during the second half of last season. If Atalanta signed the latter, they've bagged themselves a bargain.
Who will be the surprise package?
Fiorentina finished in 16th place last year with a nerve-wracking 0-0 draw at Genoa that could have seen them relegated to Serie B if results went against them. Weeks later the club was then sold to Italo-American businessman Rocco Commisso for £145m, marking the end of the Della Valle family's 17-year affiliation with the club that was slowly bordering the mediocre.
It took just over a month for the wider public to get the feeling that this could be the start of a new era for one of the underachieving Serie A sides of recent years. Commisso is restoring the club's greatness with energy, enthusiasm and most importantly big signings - with Bologna's Erick Pulgar, Sassuolo's Kevin-Prince Boateng and Pol Lirola, Lazio's Milan Badelj and finally Bayern Munich's Franck Ribery, Fiorentina fans have grown fonder of the roster being delivered for next season.
With a good combination of youth and experience led by exciting Italy winger Federico Chiesa, they can legitimately aim to bring European football back to Florence after a three-year hiatus. Under Vincenzo Montella, who already led the side to three consecutive fourth-place finishes between 2013 and 2015, Fiorentina will raise the bar and compete with the likes of Roma, AC Milan, Lazio, Torino and Atalanta as outsiders for a spot in Europe.
Serie A's opening matchweek fixtures
Parma vs Juventus (Saturday, 5pm)
Fiorentina vs Napoli (Saturday, 7.45pm)
Udinese vs Milan (Sunday, 5pm)
Cagliari vs Brescia (Sunday, 7.45pm)
Roma vs Genoa (Sunday, 7.45pm)
Sampdoria vs Lazio (Sunday, 7.45pm)
SPAL vs Atalanta (Sunday, 7.45pm)
Torino vs Sassuolo (Sunday, 7.45pm)
Verona vs Bologna (Sunday, 7.45pm)
Inter vs Lecce (Monday, 7.45pm)