2016-17 preview

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Despite a few key figures making the move to Champions League clubs, the Azzurri have nothing to worry about, writes Samuel Bridges.

Empoli renew again

Over the past two years Empoli have become one of Serie A’s most loveable clubs. Mixing quick attacks with intelligence and guile in midfield, they are Italy’s great entertainers and a neutral’s delight. But after another summer of loss there are doubts over their ability to retain such a high tempo while avoiding relegation. Club symbol Lorenzo Tonelli and Piotr Zielinski earned a deserved move to runners-up Napoli, Mario Rui finds himself at Roma with Leandro Paredes returning from his loan too.

But of course exactly one year ago the Azzurri had lost Coach Maurizio Sarri to Napoli and breakthrough star Daniele Rugani was welcomed back at Juventus.

Exciting youngsters Matheus Pereira and Andres Tello have signed and are accompanied by the hugely experienced Manuel Pasqual and Alberto Gilardino to achieve a good balance, but it is only the former Fiorentina captain that can be seen as a stable replacement for a departed star.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of Empoli’s summer is once again losing their Coach, as Marco Giampaolo replaced Vincenzo Montella at Sampdoria, paving the way for Giovanni Martusciello. The former midfielder has a wealth of experience at the club as assistant manager for the last six years, but it remains to be seen whether he can go it alone.

Despite all of the potential problems facing the Tuscan side, direct rivals Palermo, Torino and Atalanta have been dealt greater losses and face bigger problems, and Cagliari seem to be the only promoted side good enough to trouble them on the pitch and in the table. Finishing 15th and 10th respectively over the past two campaigns, there is nothing to suggest that the Azzurri should be lowering their expectations.

Given that Empoli’s gain is in other sides’ losses, it is unlikely that they can improve on last season’s 10th place finish, but it is also unlikely that they will do any worse. Mid-table obscurity awaits.

Coach - Giovanni Martusciello

Making 118 league appearances for the Azzurri and being involved behind the scenes for the past decade, Martusciello bleeds blue and white. Despite being inexperienced at the highest level of coaching, Martusciello will likely continue Maurizio Sarri’s philosophy as Marco Giampaolo did and keep the Tuscans playing quick, attacking football.

Star player - Riccardo Saponara

Somehow the former Milan trequartista has yet to be picked up by one of Serie A’s largest clubs since his return to the Stadio Castellani. Smart and quick with a huge passing range and a venomous shot from distance, the Emilia-Romagna native is built in the mould of Kaka and Pavel Nedved. Expect Empoli’s reliance on Saponara to grow without Leandro Paredes to accompany him.

Best buy - Manuel Pasqual

Despite being an early recruit, singing a two-year deal on May 31, Pasqual has been a more impressive signing that anyone else the Azzurri have recruited over the last month and a half. With 356 Serie A appearances and also being a vital cog in Vincenzo Montella’s Fiorentina revival, the former Trevisio man is a coup despite being 34 years old.

Azzurri prospect - Manuel Pucciarelli

Alongside teammate Saponara on the list of shameful national team rejections over the past five years, Pucciarelli was snubbed while Riccardo Montolivo and Claudio Marchisio were played out of position in the Francesco Totti role. Still only 25 years old, the Tuscan has a chance under Giampiero Ventura, who has a much different outlook on football than his predecessor Antonio Conte.

One who got away - Gianluca Caprari

First Empoli were going to buy him outright, then Juventus were expected to buy the Pescara man and loan him to Empoli. While they dragged their feet and discussed potential deals, Inter got in and bought him, instantly loaning him back to the Delfini. Young, smart and very quick, Caprari was a perfect fit at Empoli. The Nerazzuri picked him up for only €5m, making it a real kick in the teeth.

Probable line-up

Pugliesi; Bittante, Costa, Zambelli, PASQUAL; BUCHEL, TELLO, Croce; Saponara; Pucciarelli, GILARDINO

Prediction – Mid-table