Inter Milan start as favourites

This season's Italian league appears poised to regain the swagger it lost from the match-fixing scandal.

updated: August 17, 2007 16:44 IST
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Inter Milan is the favorite again. AC Milan starts as European champion and without a point penalty. Juventus is back from Serie B and AS Roma will be looking to improve its second-place finish from last season.

Add newly promoted Napoli and its passionate fans back into the mix, and this season's Italian league appears poised to regain the swagger it lost from the match-fixing scandal.

The season begins August 25-26.

"(Inter) is a complete squad that is aware of its strength, although it's going too far to say that it will run away all alone with the title again this time," said Fabio Capello, the former Milan, Roma, Juventus and Real Madrid coach who will work as an Italian TV commentator this season.

"Last year (Inter) started with a 15-meter advantage in a 100-meter race," Capello added. "It could win again, although not with the same advantage."

Inter finished last season 22 points ahead of second-place AS Roma to successfully defend its title. The Nerazzurri were helped by Juventus' relegation and an eight-point penalty for Milan. Lazio, Fiorentina and Reggina were also penalized last season.

"Inter will still be the team to beat, because it reinforced itself with two great acquisitions: (David) Suazo and (Christian) Chivu," Capello said in an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport. "They've also recuperated a very important player in (Patrick) Vieira, and kept hold of (Luis) Figo - another precious element."

Suazo is a speedy striker from Honduras that should contrast well with Inter's physical forwards Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Adriano. Chivu, who joined Inter from Roma, is coveted for his versatility and can play in central defence, left back or midfield.

Vieira, a physical presence in central midfield, missed half of last season through injury. Figo, the 2001 FIFA world player of the year, is back for one more season at Inter after a move to Saudi Arabian club Al Ittihad fell through.

Milan, meanwhile, has nearly the same roster as last season. The Rossoneri's only significant addition was 17-year-old Brazilian striker Alexandre Pato, who can't play until January.

"We don't need to make any acquisitions," Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti said. "The Champions League victory will give us a lot of spirit to start the season with."

One major difference from last season for Milan is its health. Defenders Alessandro Nesta, Serginho and Kakha Kaladze are back in form. Also, Ronaldo enters his first full season with the club after coming over from Real Madrid in January.

Juve's new line-up

In sharp contrast from Milan, Juventus could feature as many as seven new players in its starting lineup: defenders Jorge Andrade (from Deportivo La Coruna), Zdenek Grygera (Ajax) and Domenico Criscito (Genoa); midfielders Tiago Mendes (Lyon), Sergio Almiron (Empoli) and Hasan Salihamidzic (Bayern Munich); and forward Vincenzo Iaquinta (Udinese).

Juventus also has a new coach in former Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri.

"Ranieri is doing a great job but Juve is still in the workshop phase for now," Capello said. "It's certainly a good team, although it doesn't seem as strong to me as Inter and Milan.

"But looking down the road, the fact that they won't play in Europe shouldn't be underestimated. They'll have more time to train during the week and that's a big advantage."

Juventus can also still rely on the five core players that stayed during the scandal: goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, midfielders Pavel Nedved and Mauro Camoranesi, and forwards Alessandro Del Piero and David Trezeguet.

"If I have to be realistic, I'd say placing in the Champions League zone (top four) would be a good result," Buffon said.

Besides its second-place finish in the league, Roma also reached the Champions League quarterfinals last season - its best showing in Europe in 23 years. What the club lacked was a bench deep enough to compete in both competitions.

The arrivals of Brazilian defender Juan (Bayer Leverkusen) and midfielders Ludovic Giuly (FC Barcelona) and Mauro Esposito (Cagliari) should solve that problem.

Also, Roma is expecting a bigger contribution in attack from Mirko Vucinic this season. He managed just two goals in the last campaign.

"Considering the quality of the players they gained, I would put them nearly on a par with Milan," Capello said. "Giuly and Juan are top quality."

Roma's city rival Lazio could be hard-pressed to duplicate its third-place finish from last season. The club was relatively quiet on the transfer market.

Lazio's biggest move was bringing in Argentine goalkeeper Juan Pablo Carrizo to replace the retired Angelo Peruzzi. Carrizo has had problems gaining European Union citizenship, leaving the starting job for now to 43-year-old Marco Ballotta.

High expectations

Fiorentina could also have a hard time matching its performance from last season, when it would have finished third if not for a 15-point penalty. The main reason is the departure of high-scoring forward Luca Toni to Bayern Munich.

Fiorentina brought in Christian Vieri to replace Toni, although at 34 Vieri is far removed from the player that led Italy with five goals at the 1998 World Cup.

Palermo, which tied Fiorentina for fifth last season, also appears to have given up more than it gained. Captain Eugenio Corini and forward David Di Michele left for Torino and forward Fabrizio Miccoli was brought in from Benfica.

Udinese was the most active club on the market with 19 acquisitions and appears poised to rise from its 10th-place finish last season. Udinese outbid Sampdoria and gained the full rights to rising talent Fabio Quagliarella, who scored two goals in Italy's 2-0 win over Lithuania in June.

Sampdoria could also surprise with a renewed attack of Vincenzo Montella, Andrea Caracciolo and Antonio Cassano.

Livorno could struggle with captain Cristiano Lucarelli departed for Shakhtar Donetsk. Lucarelli scored 63 goals for Livorno over the past three seasons.

Torino is freshly stocked with Corini and Di Michele from Palermo, plus forwards Nicola Ventola and Sasa Bjelanovic, who scored eight goals for Ascoli last season. Former Sampdoria coach Walter Novellino is Torino's new manager.

Of the 20 Serie A clubs, 10 have new coaches.

Empoli gave up Almiron to Juventus but has kept intact its attack of Luca Saudati and Ighli Vannucchi and will compete in the UEFA Cup for the first time.

Ranieri and Giuseppe Rossi helped Parma avoid relegation last season. With both now gone, staying in Serie A could be even more challenging this time around.

Reggina would have contended for a UEFA Cup spot last season if not for an 11-point penalty. This season could be even tougher with Rolando Bianchi _ who scored 18 goals last season - departed for Manchester City.

Siena, Atalanta, Cagliari and Catania could also struggle.

Napoli - Diego Maradona's old club - is back in Serie A after a six-season absence and will rely on Emanuele Calaio to extend the scoring form that saw him notch 18 goals in the third division two years ago and 14 in Serie B last season.

Genoa, Italy's first soccer club, returns to the top division after a 12-season absence.

All of Italy's big cities are represented this season, and all the big derbies: Milan-Inter, Roma-Lazio, Juventus-Torino, Genoa-Sampdoria; and the classic Sicilian rivalry Palermo-Catania.