Milan sides set Serie A standard

The new Serie A season begins on Friday evening when reigning champions AC Milan entertain Lazio. Seven years have elapsed since the Scudetto last left Milan, with I Rossoneri and city rivals Inter maintaining a solid grip on the title since 2004.

While most Italian sides have been reluctant to spend big in the build-up to the new season, Juventus have been making every effort to atone for their last two disappointing campaigns, bringing in several new recruits. Elsewhere, clubs have been keeping a tight hold on their purse strings, completing their squads with free transfers or opening the door to their brightest young talents.

Two players sure to be missed over the coming months are Chilean star Alexis Sanchez, who has left Udinese for Barcelona, and Argentinian attacking midfielder Javier Pastore, formerly of Palermo and now with Paris Saint-Germain.

The champions
Having ended Inter’s five year-reign last season, AC Milan are intent on enjoying a golden era of their own. Coach Massimiliano Allegri has bolstered his defence with the signings of French centre-half Philippe Mexes and Nigerian left-back Taye Taiwo, while the 18-year-old Stefan El Shaarawy, tipped for stardom by many watchers, has joined the club from Genoa. And stepping into the cultured shoes of Andrea Pirlo - who has signed for Juventus - is versatile international midfielder Alberto Aquilani.

Allegri is expecting much from the exciting duo of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Alexandre Pato, the double-headed front of his solid 4-3-1-2 formation, with the ever-unpredictable Antonio Cassano and the hard-running Kevin-Prince Boateng providing support.

His side have already made a promising start to the season, overcoming Inter 2-1 in the Italian Super Cup. With a successful title defence and a long run in the UEFA Champions Leagues the objectives, Allegri is demanding total concentration from his charges: “I’ve asked everyone to take a good look at themselves. Relationships with players should be based on fairness and respect, and I think that’s something they can relate to.”

The challengers
Despite the departure of Samuel Eto’o, Inter Milan present the biggest threat to their neighbours’ Scudetto defence. New coach Gian Piero Gasperini, who takes over from Leonardo, has a balanced and experienced squad at his disposal and will be deploying a 3-4-1-2 formation. Old hands Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso can be expected to figure largely into his plans, while Argentinian midfielder Ricardo Alvarez will be lending creative support to Wesley Sneijder. New signing Diego Forlan will team up with Giampaolo Pazzini as Inter seek to fill the gap left by Eto’o.

Two consecutive seventh-place finishes and the failure to qualify for Europe forced Juventus to venture into the close-season transfer market. Antonio Conte, who made nearly 300 appearances for La Vecchia Signora between 1992 and 2004, has been given the coaching reins after earning his spurs in Serie B. The former midfielder knows the club as well as anyone and will no doubt be relying on the hugely experienced Andrea Pirlo to get his message across. The ex-Milan schemer will line up alongside Claudio Marchisio, new recruit Emanuele Giaccherini, who has been making a strong claim for an Italy call-up, and Chile international Arturo Vidal. Conte’s hardest task will be to conjure up a winning blend from his new-look squad, which also includes Montenegro goal-getter Mirko Vucinic, previously with Roma.

The dark horses
Determined to turn over a new leaf, Lazio have called on the services of Miroslav Klose and Djibril Cisse, two proven yet contrasting goalscorers who could dovetail to perfection. There has been plenty going on at Roma too, with the relationship between local hero Francesco Totti and new coach Luis Enrique already the subject of fevered press speculation.

“There’s more to a team than just one player,” said the former Spain and Barcelona star after leaving Totti and Marco Borriello on the bench during their UEFA Europa League defeat to Slovan Bratislava. “I’ve got a big squad here and I’ll pick the best prepared players.”

Finally, Napoli, who finished third last season but were on the wrong end of a 5-0 friendly thrashing by Barcelona recently, have made a handful of midfield signings to support their much-vaunted strike force of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Edinson Cavani and Marek Hamsik, while also drafting in Goran Pandev on loan from Inter.

Big-name signings
Bojan Krkic and Erik Lamela joined Roma from Barcelona and River Plate respectively, with Real Madrid cast-off Fernando Gago and former Lyon star Miralem Pjanic late additions to the Giallorossi squad. After playing respective starring roles at Bayern Munich and Panathinaikos, Klose and Cisse have the job of reviving Lazio’s fortunes. Switching one Italian club for another is Mauro Zarate, who has left Lazio for Inter, with Federico Marchetti joining I Biancocelesti from Cagliari, Gokhan Inler swapping Udinese for Napoli, and goalkeeper Sebastien Frey moving to Genoa from Fiorentina. Pirlo and Vucinic will bring plenty of experience to the Juventus ranks, while former Viola striker Adrian Mutu will be hoping to inspire Cesena. 

Players to watch
The Inter duo of Pazzini and Andrea Ranocchia are on the way to becoming cornerstones of Cesare Prandelli’s Italy squad, while Pirlo will be out to show Juventus that he still has a lot to offer at the age of 32. The veteran midfielder’s task is similar to the one faced by Klose, who is looking to end his career in style at Lazio. Roma are expecting big things from young Spanish striker Bojan Krkic after Luis Enrique lured him away from Barcelona, and Juve will be hoping frontman Giaccherini strikes up an understanding with midfielder Claudio Marchisio.

What they said
Juventus need to learn how to say the word scudetto again,” Juventus coach Antonio Conte.

Have your say
Will the Serie A title stay in Milan for the eighth season running?