Juventus still the team to beat in Serie A as Napoli, Inter and Milan look to bridge gap
As the Italian season kicks off this weekend, here's a look at Serie A from top to bottom.
2017-18 record: W30-D5-L3
2017-18 finish: Champions
Roma's Daniele De Rossi feels Juventus have "killed the league a little" after signing Cristiano Ronaldo. But the same was said two years ago when the Old Lady cannibalised Serie A, mercilessly paying the buy-out clauses of Gonzalo Higuain and Miralem Pjanic to weaken their domestic rivals (Napoli and Roma respectively). Last season, though, Napoli managed to push Juventus to the limit in what was by far the most competitive title race in Europe's top five leagues. Ronaldo is no guarantee of the Scudetto either. He won La Liga just twice in nine years in Spain. But who are we kidding? As if bringing in Ronaldo wasn't already enough, the return of Leonardo Bonucci and acquisitions of Joao Cancelo and Emre Can make their starting XI better. New captain Giorgio Chiellini spoke about the need for a shock to keep the team interested and motivated. Ronaldo not only does that, he raises standards where they were already sky high. Training with him, learning from him, will inspire others, like Paulo Dybala, to get better. Is there any hope for the rest of the league? Maybe Juve will be distracted by the Champions League. There's a chance they might miss Gigi Buffon off the pitch as much as on it. And what of Bonucci? Will he really be welcomed back as if nothing happened? And just imagine if Ronaldo comes to the same conclusion as Dani Alves and decides that playing for Juventus isn't as much fun as he thought it would be. Ultimately we're clutching at straws, because if there's one thing this teaches us, it's Juventus never take Serie A for granted.
2017-18 record: W28-D7-L3
2017-18 finish: Runners-up
Before Ronaldo landed in Italy, the biggest signing of the summer in Italy came in Naples, where Carlo Ancelotti surprisingly pitched up after almost a decade of working outside of Serie A. Juve boss Massimiliano Allegri was among the first to welcome him back, tweeting that Ancelotti is synonymous with coaching excellence. The 59-year-old will have to show all his worth, bearing in mind his predecessor, Maurizio Sarri, had Napoli punching way above their weight. Ancelotti has been unable to use his star power to attract big names in the way Rafa Benitez did a few years ago, and you get the feeling Aurelio de Laurentiis, Napoli's gregarious owner, isn't too bothered. Persuading Marek Hamsik to stay and keeping the team's irresistible attacking trident together is already enough of a coup. Still, the onus is on Ancelotti to head off any regression in Serie A, deliver the silverware that eluded Sarri and go deeper in Europe. Seeing how well Roma did in the Champions League last season clearly affected de Laurentiis. Of the new signings, expect Alex Meret to challenge Gigio Donnarumma for the Italy No.1 shirt and Fabian Ruiz to establish himself as one of the best foreign imports. But they most also deal with the loss of Jorginho to Chelsea.
2017-18 record: W23-D8-L7
2017-18 finish: 3rd
Last year was a game-changer for Roma. A run to the Champions League semifinals brought fans back in droves and attracted new sponsorship. While it's a blow to lose the league's best goalkeeper (Alisson) and the team's most iconic non-Roman player (Radja Nainggolan), for the second summer running Monchi has added more depth to help Roma go the distance in all competitions. The kids he continues to sign also make this team hip and exciting. Just imagine Justin Kluivert, Patrik Schick and Cengiz Under playing up front and realising their potential. Is there a cooler attack in Italy? Probably only Fiorentina can boast one as millennial in its appeal. The question is: how much continuity will Roma have from last year? The Giallorossi have changed a lot. Will Eusebio di Francesco be able to build on the foundations he laid in his first season? This team has fantastic upside and should be a fun watch. It's also great to see Javier Pastore back in Italy after seven years with PSG. Roma need him to be better at home and make goal scoring come easier than it did last season. Make that happen, and Roma have what it takes to deliver the first silverware under owner James Pallotta at senior level. The late signing of World Cup winner Steven N'Zonzi completes an already stacked midfield.
2017-18 record: W20-D12-L6
2017-18 finish: 4th
It doesn't feel like an exaggeration to call this the best side Inter have assembled since they won the Treble in 2010. Back in the Champions League after six years, the Nerazzurri are pulling out all the stops to challenge Juventus. On paper, they look like the most improved team in the league as Inter have done some great business. Stefan de Vrij arrives on a free and enables the team to go to a back three. World Cup finalist Sime Vrsalijko swells the Croatia contingent and replaces Cancelo at right-back. Nainggolan reunites with Luciano Spalletti, under whom he enjoyed his best season. Goals from midfield were a problem for Inter last year. They won't be anymore: Lautaro Martinez promises to be Serie A's next big thing, and wingers Keita Balde Diao and Matteo Politano make Inter's attacking repertoire that little bit more dangerous and unpredictable. Expect Inter to be better in Spalletti's second year. The team is now fresher and more flexible. Efforts to sign Luka Modric demonstrate the ambition to respond to Juventus rather than roll over. Inter look readier than anyone else to come at the king.
2017-18 record: W21-D9-L8
2017-18 finish: 5th
Fine margins make the difference. Fifteen-minute blackouts against FC Salzburg and Inter revised judgement of Lazio's season from excellent to very good. Missing out on the Champions League on the final day and on head-to-head was particularly galling for a team that had played so well all year. They deserved more, and go into the upcoming campaign out not for redemption but to finish what they started. Lazio are realistic about making the top four, but belief is strong especially with Sergej Milinkovic-Savic sticking around. No one expected him to still be in celeste this season, and that alone is reason to be confident in another push for Champions League football. Losing De Vrij to Inter hurts more than Felipe Anderson's move to West Ham. Anderson was a luxury impact sub last season and his sale has allowed Lazio to strengthen across the board. Francesco Acerbi will help the defence move on from De Vrij, Milan Badelj and Valon Berisha should add ideas to the midfield. As for the attack, Ciro Immobile probably fancies himself to be Capocannoniere again with Riza Durmisi's crossing and Joaquin Correa's needle-and-thread work in the final third. Make no mistake: Lazio remain a force to be reckoned with.
2017-18 record: W18-D10-L10
2017-18 finish: 6th
From defaulting on their debt and getting kicked out of Europe to being repossessed and reinstated to the Europa League. It's been a remarkable summer at AC Milan. The Diavolo now look a lot more credible with the backing of hedge fund Elliott Management, and Paolo Maldini's decision to accept a role in the new project is the biggest endorsement possible. Leonardo has wasted no time in working wonders within the constraints of financial fair play after some expected a fire sale at Milan this summer. The fear was Bonucci wouldn't be the only one to run a mile. Instead, Milan are stronger. Extracting Mattia Caldara from Juventus, a move the Old Lady made with a heavy heart, ensures Milan's defence and Italy's for the next decade are one and the same. The lack of a prolific striker held Milan back last year, but bringing on Higuain, who has scored more goals than anybody else in Serie A in the last five years, pretty much solves that problem. Milan should push for Champions League football this year. Results in the second half of last season were in line with that objective. Any misstep will inevitably see the shadow of Antonio Conte loom large over manager Rino Gattuso.
2017-18 record: W16-D12-L10
2017-18 finish: 7th
One has to applaud Atalanta, not only for the club's commitment to developing young players but for making qualification for European competition something close to normality under Gian Piero Gasperini. The scale of the achievement assumes a greater dimension when you look at how much the team has changed in the last two years. It's practically unrecognisable, and yet the identity of this team, which makes an aesthetic out of the aggressive, remains as potent as ever. The biggest compliment you can pay Atalanta is that nobody likes playing against them. They have the perfect mix of physicality and skill, fearlessness of youth and canny experience that makes going to Bergamo as bruising on the ego as it is on the body. In Papu Gomez, Atalanta have one of the most underrated players in Europe. But if I were you, I'd pay close attention to teenage striker Musa Barrow, who promises to be the breakout star of this season's Serie A.
2017-18 record: W16-D9-L13
2017-18 finish: 8th
Already young last year, Fiorentina are even younger after this summer's transfer window. But the startling maturity the kids showed over the last nine months probably helped encourage this strategy. The tragic death of captain Davide Astori forced this fresh-faced Fiorentina side to grow up in a hurry and apply themselves in a manner that often doesn't come until much later in a player's career. The club-record winning streak Fiorentina went on in the weeks that followed Astori's passing showed what this team is capable of. There is great potential at the Artemio Franchi. New goalkeeper Albin Lafont was talked about as Ligue 1's answer to Gigio Donnarumma, and the attack looks very exciting indeed, with Marko Pjaca joining Federico Chiesa and Giovanni Simeone. The Viola are right to be hopeful of a return to Europe.
2017-18 record: W13-D15-L10
2017-18 finish: 9th
Walter Mazzarri has had six months to get to know Torino, a transfer window to shape the team in his image and a full preseason to get his ideas across. Owner Urbano Cairo has invested a lot in the last two years, and the return he demands is European football for the first time since Gian Piero Ventura's stint at the club in 2014-15. A lot will depend on whether Torino's bull-like striker Andrea Belotti rediscovers the form of two seasons ago, when he bullied defences up and down the peninsula. His goal-rich preseason certainly bodes well. Mazzarri has a reputation as a centre-forward whisperer and, mindful of how much Belotti's stock fell last year, he could be a value pick in a Serie A fantasy draft. The Rooster, as he's known, should bounce back.
2017-18 record: W16-D6-L16
2017-18 finish: 10th
One of the best teams to watch in Serie A, Sampdoria provided us with some of the most memorable games of last season. The way they trounced Milan and then Juventus at Marassi and went toe-to-toe with Napoli at the San Paolo, while serving up some glorious football, made it all the more galling when they narrowly fell short of qualifying for Europe despite spending much of the campaign in the top six. Ultimately Samp's away form let them down, and the pressure took hold whenever the chance to take ownership of one of the top spots came around. New sporting director Walter Sabatini has asked Marco Giampaolo to vary his tactics a bit more and progress the mentality of the team. There's a degree of excitement around Samp's signings and no shortage of speculation as to which one might soon be proclaimed another great discovery of Sabatini's. Junior Tavarez, the dribble-happy full-back signed from Sao Paulo, fits that bill.
2017-18 record: W11-D10-L17
2017-18 finish: 11th
Motivating a team that has recently overachieved is never easy and that's definitely been the case at Sassuolo ever since their run to the Europa League in 2016. Determining what the season's objective is has proven tricky, leading to the kind of drift which ends in an unexpected relegation battle as happened last term. New manager Roberto de Zerbi is a bright and innovative young coach who caught the eye last year principally because he ensured Benevento didn't lose every game. This is the first time he has started the season with a top-flight team so it'll be interesting to see how he gets on. Francesco Acerbi leaves a big hole in the defence but Domenico Berardi is still around, though it must be said his career is in need of a kick-start. Federico di Francesco, son of former Sassuolo manager Eusebio, takes Matteo Politano's place on the wing and Manuel Locatelli should thrive in midfield. The Neroverdi's big summer signing isn't him though but the charismatic Kevin-Prince Boateng. The member of Milan's last Scudetto-winning team promises to make Sassuolo a lot of fun. Typically his first goal in preseason was a ridiculous back-heel.
2017-18 record: W11-D8-L19
2017-18 finish: 12th
Davide Ballardini is Genoa's saviour and the club have finally woken up to the fact. Last year marked the third time he has rescued them from relegation, which is why owner Enrico Preziosi decided it might be worth keeping him around. Ballardini made Genoa one of the best defensive units in the league. They were as watertight as one of the boats in the city's marina and very frustrating to play against. As is the case with Genoa every summer though, it's all change and the defence Ballardini made so stingy is no longer around. Mattia Perin has left to compete for the No. 1 spot at Juventus and the wonderkids from the club's academy, Pietro Pellegri and Edy Salcedo, have been sold for a quick buck. At least fan favourite Domenico Criscito is back after seven years in Russia with Zenit. Kryysztof Piatek also looks an intriguing signing. He was one of the top scorers in Poland last year and will duke it out with Samp's next big thing, Dawid Kownacki, in the Derby della Lanterna.
2017-18 record: W10-D10-L18
2017-18 finish: 13th
The Flying Donkeys spent much of the summer in a state of anxiety about their Serie A status after an investigation was launched on the back of reporting by journalist Pippo Russo. He found it remarkable that the club had made €61m over the last four years from the sales of young and largely unknown players. Cleared by an FIGC tribunal in July, another trial is scheduled for September which could end in a points deduction. Kept in suspense, Chievo have done relatively little in the transfer market and must hope that former youth team coach Lorenzo d'Anna, who boasts a 100 percent win ratio after stepping in for the final weeks of last season, is more than just a flash in the pan.
2017-18 record: W12-D4-L22
2017-18 finish: 14th
The boldest managerial appointment in Serie A this summer goes to Udinese. Julio Velazquez is 36 and led Alcorcon to 13th in the Spanish second division last season. He is the first coach born in the 1980s ever to work in Italy's top flight. It could be a stroke of genius. It could also blow up in their faces. But one thing is clear: Udinese feel playing it safe is what got them into trouble in recent years. A lack of stability was surely a contributing factor too. Seven coaching changes in four seasons goes some way to explaining why Udinese have flirted more with relegation than the European places. The club also appears to have lost its touch in the transfer market while the perception that the Pozzo family prioritise Watford has left fans disillusioned. Things just haven't been the same since Francesco Guidolin departed and Antonio Di Natale retired.
2017-18 record: W11-D6-L21
2017-18 finish: 15th
Parting with the safe and steady figure of Roberto Donadoni, who clashed repeatedly with fans last season, signals Bologna are no longer prepared to settle for mid-table mediocrity. Pippo Inzaghi is back in Serie A after his baptism of fire in management at Milan. The former fox-in-the-box showed great humility in dropping to the third division with Venezia, with whom he achieved promotion one year and a place in the Serie B playoffs the next. Bologna lost their best player, the ambidextrous winger Simone Verdi in the summer, depriving them of the spark that made watching them worthwhile last season. Inzaghi needs to reawaken the goal scorer in Mattia Destro and failing that pass on his old penalty-box skills to Diego Falcinelli and Federico Santander. Oddly for a man of his reputation, Inzaghi's teams are renowned for not conceding goals rather than scoring them which should come easier with the signing of talented goalkeeper Lukasz Skorupski from Roma. If you fancy catching a game at the Dall'Ara this season, the Boxing Day match could be the ticket. Pippo's brother Simone will be there with his Lazio team. Let the sibling rivalry commence.
2017-18 record: W11-D6-L21
2017-18 finish: 16th
The walls were closing in on Cagliari last season, but like Indiana Jones, they rolled out from under and grabbed their fedora at the last second. The Sardinians had a rough run-in from and looked like goners only to improbably beat Europa League-chasing Fiorentina and Atalanta in the final fortnight of the campaign. While the team survived, coach Diego Lopez didn't. Cagliari have upgraded with Rolando Maran, one of Italy's most tactically astute managers, and will benefit from the leadership of Darijo Srna. Keeping a top prospect like Nicolo Barella around for another year is a bonus and the midfield could actually be quite tasty with Lucas Castro joining from Chievo and Santi Colombatto stepping up from the second division. Colombatto was at Perugia last season with the free-scoring Alberto Cerri, who is due a crack in Serie A.
2017-18 record: W8-D14-L16
2017-18 finish: 17th
The only promoted side to stay up last season, SPAL survived on the final day but gave the impression of having figured Serie A out from spring onwards. The board stuck by Leonardo Semplici over a rough winter and were rewarded as he successfully adjusted the team to a higher level. Back in Serie A for the first time in almost half a century, SPAL need to maintain the enthusiasm that made the Paolo Mazza such a great place to play last season. Signing Andrea Petagna, whose build and playing style is reminiscent of Diego Costa, goes some way to doing that. If they are to stay up in comfort, SPAL need him to start firing and mustn't be as reliant on Mirko Antenucci for goals as they were a year ago. At least free-kick taking goalkeeper Vanja Milinkovic-Savic gives them another scoring option should all else fail.
2017-18 record: W24-D13-L5
2017-18 finish: Serie B champions
A small Tuscan club with a big reputation for identifying coaching talent. Spalletti, Sarri, Guidolin and Giampaolo all made a name for themselves at Empoli. Now it's Aurelio Andreazzoli's turn. Yet to lose as Empoli coach, he blew Serie B away after coming in for Vincenzo Vivarini at Christmas. Fifth when he took over, Empoli won the league by 13 points and with four games to spare, scoring three or more goals in 17 of the 28 matches Andreazzoli took charge of. Relegated the season before last when not scoring enough goals, Empoli look to have learned the lesson. Keep tabs on Antonino La Gumina, the Sicilian striker with a bright future, who Empoli decided to break their transfer record for in order to lure him away from hometown club Palermo.
2017-18 record: W21-D9-L12
2017-18 finish: Serie B runners-up
It gives one goosebumps just thinking about it. Parma are back in Serie A three years after the club went bust and had to start all over again in Italy's fourth division. Captain Alessandro Lucarelli went down with the ship and announced his retirement following Parma's third-consecutive promotion in May. His work was done. Ambiguous WhatsApp messages from striker Emanuele Calaio and a friend on Spezia's team in the week leading up to Parma's promotion-clinching game not only aroused suspicion but brought the risk of demotion before a ball had even been kicked. News that the case had been thrown out on appeal met with sighs of relief. La Stampa called it "A fairytale too beautiful to be tarnished." Serie A is a better place for having Parma in it and Roberto Inglese is a sensible signing for Parma's attack.
2017-18 record: W19-D15-L8
2017-18 finish: 3rd in Serie B
Back in Serie A two years on from their first-ever appearance in the top flight, Frosinone would have returned sooner had they not choked last year when they famously lost to nine-man Carpi in the playoffs. Fearing a repeat this year, particularly as they faded in the spring and missed out on automatic promotion on the final day of the regular season, the club's ball-boys unsportingly threw balls onto the pitch to stop a Palermo attack and waste time in the playoff final second leg. So if you're wondering why Frosinone start the season with a two-game stadium ban, there's your answer. You can't imagine the relief when the fixture list came out and Juventus' trip to Frosinone was scheduled for the end of December. The idea of missing out on the gate receipts from Cristiano Ronaldo's visit to the brand new Benito Stirpe stadium was a cause of great concern. Joel Campbell is the Ciociari's most eclectic summer signing.