Serie A Preview: Juve remain favourites, but Napoli, Inter poised to pounce if Sarri experiment backfires
After a three-month hiatus, Serie A returns this Saturday, starting with Juventus at Parma, while every game in Italy's top flight can be seen live in the United States on ESPN+ this season.
On the eve of the 2019-20 campaign, there is hope for all 20 clubs and questions abound: Will Juve win a ninth consecutive Scudetto? Who will qualify for the Champions League? Can Mario Balotelli keep his hometown club Brescia from being relegated?
Tom Williams is here to answer those questions and examine all of the calcio storylines to watch in 2019-20.
Serie A is still Juventus' to lose
If Juventus fans will be closely scrutinising how their team adapts to life under new head coach Maurizio Sarri over the opening weeks of the new Serie A season, the same will be true for supporters of their expected title rivals, Napoli and Inter Milan.
Sarri, who might miss Saturday's opening fixture against Parma after being diagnosed with pneumonia, was brought to Juventus to take the club to the next level. After eight successive Serie A titles, won by an average of more than nine points, mere domestic dominance will no longer suffice. The former Napoli coach is expected to inject panache into the somewhat perfunctory football that was Juve's calling card under Massimiliano Allegri and end the club's 23-year wait for a third Champions League crown.
It is no small order, but he has plenty of resources at his disposal. Juve saw off competition from various super clubs to sign centre-back starlet Matthijs de Ligt from Ajax and have bolstered their midfield with free transfers Aaron Ramsey from Arsenal and former PSG ace Adrien Rabiot. Cristiano Ronaldo, last season's Serie A Player of the Year, has had a full year to acclimate to life in Italy and is chasing a sixth Ballon d'Or. Although Juve must adapt to an unfamiliar coach, so too must Inter, AC Milan and Roma.
If everything clicks, the Scudetto will be Juve's to lose. But if Sarri experiences any of the teething problems he encountered during his solitary season at Chelsea, where the fans never took to his vision or style, the chances of Italy crowning a first champion other than Juve since Allegri's Milan took the spoils in 2011 will significantly increase.
Who can strike if Juve slip?
Runners-up last season, Napoli have enjoyed a more tranquil summer than their major rivals, with Carlo Ancelotti remaining at the helm and the club quietly conducting some impressive transfer business. Kostas Manolas, a €36 million capture from Roma, looks set to form what could become one of Europe's most imposing centre-back partnerships alongside Kalidou Koulibaly, while Mexico winger Hirving Lozano will add dynamism and directness in attack -- and soften the blow of losing to Arsenal for Nicolas Pepe.
Napoli failed to replicate 2017-18's captivating title charge last season due to their inability to win the big games. They lost twice to Juve in the league, were eliminated by Milan in the Coppa Italia quarterfinals and crashed out of the Europa League against Arsenal, having previously failed to advance out of a Champions League group with PSG, Liverpool and Red Star Belgrade. But Ancelotti believes Napoli's serene summer could give his side an edge.
"Napoli will get to the start of the season quite tried and tested," he told La Gazzetta dello Sport. "We don't need to experiment in our play in order to become more fluent. That may give us a small advantage over our rivals, who have changed something."
If Napoli are banking on stability, an offseason of clear-minded evolution at Inter has left Nerazzurri supporters dreaming of a first league title since Jose Mourinho's 2010 treble.
Inter head into the new campaign with a management team that knows exactly what it takes to win the championship, after former Juve CEO Beppe Marotta brought in former Juve coach Antonio Conte to replace Luciano Spalletti. A born winner, Conte's task is to infuse Inter with the kind of uncompromising mentality he instilled at Juve, where he won three Scudetti in a row, and with Chelsea, who stormed to the Premier League title in his first season in England.
Conte's preferred 3-5-2 system will benefit from intelligent additions in every department: the wily Diego Godin bolstering the defence, young Italy internationals Stefano Sensi and Nicolo Barella bringing craft and guile to midfield, and Romelu Lukaku, an €80 million acquisition from Manchester United, furnishing the new coach with the kind of battering ram striker he adores in attack. With Radja Nainggolan (loaned to Cagliari) and Ivan Perisic (loaned to Bayern Munich) gone and divisive former captain Mauro Icardi expected to follow, Inter will also hope to avoid some of the internal conflicts that hampered them in 2018-19.
"I don't have a magic wand, but it's up to me to show the way, and it'll be important for everyone to follow this path," Conte said earlier this summer. "A spirit of sacrifice, ferocity, passion and a great desire to work hard will be required if we want to have a season where we're one of the key players, as is our intention."
The race for Champions League qualification
Conte's return to his homeland maintains Serie A's quota of tigerish former Italy midfielders, following Gennaro Gattuso's departure from Milan in the wake of last season's disappointing fifth-place finish. Former Sampdoria coach Marco Giampaolo will look to add some sparkle to the Rossoneri's football, and with no European commitments to worry about, after Milan were excluded from the Europa League due to Financial Fair Play infringements, he will have plenty of time to hone his signature 4-3-1-2 system.
Ismael Bennacer, signed from Empoli after starring in Algeria's Africa Cup of Nations triumph, is an eye-catching acquisition in midfield, while young Portuguese forward Rafael Leao, bought from Lille for €35 million to replace the outgoing Patrick Cutrone (Wolves), will form a new-look strike partnership with Krzysztof Piatek, who hopes to put the curse of the Milan No. 9 shirt to bed after inheriting the jersey following his impressive start to life at San Siro last season.
Sixth last term, Roma are looking to new head coach Paulo Fonseca and a youthful squad to find calmer waters after a turbulent few months in which the Giallorossi parted ways with a coach (Eusebio Di Francesco), a sporting director (Monchi) and two club legends in Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi. Simone Inzaghi remains in charge across town at Lazio, where last season's Coppa Italia winners will attempt to improve on an eighth-place showing, despite modest dealings in the transfer window to date.
Then there is last season's surprise package, Atalanta, who were guided to a superb third-place finish by Gian Piero Gasperini. They must contend with the distraction of the first Champions League campaign in their 111-year history, which seems certain to take a toll on the squad over the first half of the season at least.
Other storylines to watch
The other clubs bidding to upset the established order include Sampdoria, where Di Francesco is now in charge, Walter Mazzarri's water-tight Torino and Bologna, who are likely to benefit from widespread neutral support following head coach Sinisa Mihajlovic's leukemia diagnosis. The former free-kick maestro, who steered Bologna to safety last season after arriving in January, has been watching training sessions and friendly matches from his hospital bed and delivering team talks via Skype.
Brescia, promoted from Serie B alongside Lecce and Verona, have generated plenty of column inches following Mario Balotelli's decision to sign for his hometown club. The striker, who spent the second half of last season at Marseille, is motivated by the ambition of claiming a spot in Italy's squad for Euro 2020, but national coach Roberto Mancini -- who knows the 29-year-old better than most -- has warned him to not expect any special treatment.
"I love him, but I can't do anything for him. He must remember that he's in the prime of his career and that he still has so much to give," Mancini told La Gazzetta. "It's all about how much he wants it."