As the start of the new Serie A season fast approaches, it is once again the division's northern giants that are favourites to compete for a crown won by Inter Milan for the last four campaigns. That apart, the major news of the off-season was more concerned with the departure and retirement of a host of Italian football's most famous faces than the arrival of fresh new talent.

On this theme, Serie A's two biggest stars of recent years, Brazil's Kaka and Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Sweden, have made the move to La Liga with Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively, switches that have cast doubt on the pulling power of the Italian game. Even without Ibrahimovic, however, Inter will start as favourites once more, though Juventus, who finished ten points adrift in second place in 2008/09, have spent heavily in an attempt to close the gap.

The champions
"We're stronger and better balanced now. I'm pleased with this squad," stated Inter coach Jose Mourinho, who has overseen a minor overhaul during the summer months in a bid for UEFA Champions League as well as domestic glory. Aside from Ibra, out have gone the likes of Julio Cruz (Lazio), Hernan Crespo (Genoa) and Luis Figo (end of contract).

Coming in the opposite direction is experienced defender Lucio, purchased from Bayern Munich. The Brazil skipper is key to Mourinho's plan to move his defensive line higher up the field, squeeze the space between defence and attack and thus keep opponents further away from a goal guarded by Julio Cesar, currently among the finest keepers in the world game. Charged with pulling the strings in midfield will be former Barcelona man Thiago Motta, who will have two strikers to aim for including his team-mate from last season at Genoa, Diego Milito, scorer of 24 Serie A goals last term. Milito's partnership with another lethal new boy in Samuel Eto'o promises much, with the pair already showing a good understanding in pre-season.

"Before, everything used to revolve around Zlatan," said the Special One, who is expected to alternate between a 4-3-1-2 and 4-3-3 formation. "With this team, which will play higher up the pitch, it will enable us to control the play better before we break out with the two strikers who'll be operating in different channels."

The challengers
Juventus, despite the retirement of Pavel Nedved, also look to have purchased wisely. The 42-year-old coach and club icon Ciro Ferrara, a caretaker last season but now handed a permanent role, has reinforced the backbone of the team, starting in defence. The return of 35-year former Juve centre-back Fabio Cannavaro means he will reprise his national team partnership with Giorgio Chiellini, backed up by Uruguay's Martin Caceres, on loan from Barça.

Brazil international Felipe Melo, signed from Fiorentina, looks set to line up at the heart of midfield. There he will be expected to provide a platform for the likes of the evergreen Alessandro Del Piero, former Werder Bremen and Porto playmaker Diego and the Brazilian-born front-runner Amauri. And Ferrara, a relative coaching novice despite his vast playing experience, also has proven performers such as Sebastian Giovinco, David Trezeguet and Nicola Legrottaglie to call upon, giving I Bianconeri a squad capable of pushing Inter all the way.

Another Serie A giant to hand their coaching reigns to a former player are AC Milan, with 39-year-old Leonardo facing his first season in the role without stalwarts such as Kaka and the retired Paolo Maldini. He does however welcome back classy central defender Alessandro Nesta, seemingly recovered from a nightmarish succession of injuries, and can partner him with the Brazilian Thiago Silva or USA international Oguchi Onyewu, signed from Standard Liege.

Replacing Kaka could prove Leonardo's biggest challenge, despite counting on a fearsome front three, on paper at least, of Ronaldinho, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Alexandre Pato. The trio will need time to gel, however, going on the evidence of just one victory in ten pre-season matches, with only nine goals scored to 17 conceded.

"Our motivation will make the difference. Remember 2007. People thought that team was finished but we won three trophies," said the new supremo, who will be hoping Ronaldinho keeps his vow to rediscover the form that made him FIFA World Player in 2004 and 2005.

The outsiders
As is their custom, Roma will be putting their faith in captain and Francesco Totti after the Roman legend signed yet another contract extension with his one and only club. In spite of a host of changes, Fiorentina will have high hopes of repeating last season's fourth spot given their prolific strike duo of Alberto Gilardino and Adrian Mutu. Napoli may also shake the top of the tree, particularly after adding Udinese and Italy front-runner Fabio Quagliarella to an attacking arsenal already including Argentinian livewire Ezequiel Lavezzi.

Players to watch
The Milito-Eto'o partnership has the potential to set the division alight, while ex-Inter forward Crespo will be hoping to take advantage of the greater playing time on offer in Genoa colours. Meanwhile, can Juve's diminutive attacker Giovinco make enough progress to earn a place in Italy's squad for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™?

Have your say
Can Inter pull off a magnificent quadruple? Will Samuel Eto'o find goals as plentiful as he did in Spain? Is this going to be the season Ronaldinho gets back to his world-beating best? Click on 'Add your comment' and share your opinion.