Saturday’s Inter-Juventus tie is the first of a number of close encounters which could shape the Serie A season, writes Dave Taylor.
Once upon a time, there were seven sisters. They were made up of Juventus, Milan, Inter, Parma, Lazio, Roma and Fiorentina. They invariably contested and won many of Europe’s top prizes. Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, beset by financial problems le sette sorelle broke up and went their separate ways.
Now, boosted by an astute summer of buying and selling, the siblings have been reunited – well, almost. Take out Parma and Lazio, then add Napoli and you have six sides seemingly intent on returning Serie A to those glory days.
The Inter-Juventus clash this weekend is the opening salvo in a run of crucial ties over the next three matchdays that involves all six. Week 4 sees Milan entertain Napoli and Roma play Lazio, while Inter will welcome Fiorentina in Week 5. And although these results won’t mean too much statistically at this stage of the season, they could give an early insight as to who will finish where.
These new six sisters have made their intentions clear with their financial outlays over the summer and by collecting, with the exception of Milan, maximum points from the first two rounds.
The biggest spenders were Napoli who laid out over €70m, with their record €37.5m capture of Real Madrid striker Gonzalo Higuain their most impressive swoop. Other new recruits included Spanish forward Jose Callejon and defender Raul Albiol, Belgian international Dries Mertens and Brazilian goalkeeper Rafael. Fellow custodian Pepe Reina was netted on loan from Liverpool.
“We have targeted players with a few years of experience, players who can hit the ground running,” clarified new Coach Rafa Benitez. When you factor in the contract extensions to the “priceless” Marek Hamsik and the explosive Lorenzo Insigne, Benitez could not have made his intentions any clearer.
Fiorentina also made some exciting buys with dynamic young Coach Vincenzo Montella partnering €15.5m striker Mario Gomez with a revitalised Giuseppe Rossi. Add in experienced Milan veteran Massimo Ambrosini, the menacing attacking midfielder Josip Ilicic and they too will be looking towards a top spot. The Scudetto, though, remains a big ask.
Roma are another club who purchased big, with almost €50m spent on three players. Serbian star Adem Ljajic, the ultra-classy defender Mehdi Benatia and top midfielder Kevin Strootman all arrived and played their parts in their two wins as the Giallorossi look to seriously compete despite some high profile sales.
On the other hand, Milan started slowly by losing their first game at Verona. But as Zenit’s former Roma Coach Luciano Spalletti said: “Milan are Milan.” He also reminded us that a side labelled as horrifying during the early part of 2012-13 still ended the campaign in third. On paper, Milan will be competitive following the signings of Andrea Poli, Matias Silvestre and Alessandro Matri. If Kaka is anything like his old self then the Diavolo could be hard to stop – especially if Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy both deliver.
Inter also had a busy transfer window with some established performers like Napoli stopper Hugo Campagnaro reinforcing the squad alongside some potential stars of tomorrow in the shape of Mauro Icardi and Ishak Belfodil. The most crucial capture, though, could be that of Walter Mazzarri – a tactician who has already given his side a new identity.
The Beneamata’s credentials will be tested in the Derby d’Italia clash on Saturday. Inter President Massimo Moratti thinks his team can close the gap on Juventus, with former club legend Ronaldo believing Inter will have a great season without the pressures of European involvement.
That’s a possibility, but Juventus are still rightly regarded as favourites for the Scudetto. Yet the Nerazzurri did break Juve’s unbeaten run last season with a trident formation foiling lynchpin Andrea Pirlo and cutting off the Bianconeri’s obvious superiority in midfield. If they can repeat the trick, there might just be something in Juve director general Beppe Marotta’s warning that Inter are among the title favourites.
“It will be a tough match for us, it will be important to determine our quality, but also the quality of our opponents, who I think can compete for Scudetto,” he said. Whatever the result though, a game in Week 3 will not decide the destiny of the tournament.
It could demonstrate, though, how strong Inter really are as a defensive unit. They are yet to concede this term after only Pescara let in more goals than them in 2012-13. Carlos Tevez will provide some questions given his three goals in three games so far. The Argentine has been the key addition to the Old Lady, adding a touch of class in the one department the Old Lady had been lacking in. Will he be the key factor in Juve’s search for a hat-trick of Scudetti?