Can Italy’s golden sporting summer help to revive the ailing Serie A?
Italy has never known a sporting summer like it. After Roberto Mancini’s Azzurri delivered on his vow to win Euro 2020, the Olympians followed up with a record 40 medals and 10 golds in Tokyo. Fabio Capello spoke for many: “I have never felt so Italian as I do right now.”
Will the feelgood factor carry over into a new Serie A season? Or has Italy’s top football league been diminished by the departures of too many leading lights? The Internazionale team who ended Juventus’s nine-year reign as champions have since bid farewell to Antonio Conte, Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi. Their city rivals, Milan, had Gianluigi Donnarumma departing on a free.
The damage to the league’s brand is undeniable. Conte fits into a rare category of superstar manager, one who was billed by Inter’s sporting chief executive, Beppe Marotta, as the club’s “top player”, and who justified such words by dragging them back to the top – just as he had done with Juventus and Chelsea.
Lukaku arrived in Milan with a diminished reputation but re-established himself under Conte as one of the world’s best No 9s, as well as a fan favourite to whom two murals are devoted. Hakimi almost doubled his value in a single dominant season at right-back. Donnarumma was named Uefa’s Player of the Tournament at Euro 2020 and saved the decisive penalty in the final.
Even Cristiano Ronaldo’s future in Serie A is unclear with persistent reports of the five-times Ballon d’Or winner seeking to extricate himself from the last year of his Juventus contract. He attacked such speculation on Instagram on Tuesday, saying “the frivolous way that my future is covered in the media is disrespectful to all the clubs involved”, yet for all his anger there was no unambiguous declaration he wants to stay.
His relationship with Massimiliano Allegri has been under scrutiny since the returning Juventus manager stated Ronaldo would carry greater responsibilities as a role model this term, advising him that he should expect to sit some games out just like everyone else.
Juventus hope Allegri can reinvigorate the career of Paulo Dybala – who scored a career-best 22 Serie A goals under his leadership in 2017-18. That figure dropped to five after Ronaldo arrived the following season, with Allegri arguing back then that Mario Mandzukic was a more natural partner to the club’s record signing.
Protracted negotiations over an extension to Dybala’s contract, which expires in 2022, have created further anxiety for the Juventus hierarchy. Still, their team looks strong. Federico Chiesa is ready to kick on after his brilliant Euros, while another Italy international, Manuel Locatelli, arrives from Sassuolo to upgrade the team’s biggest weak spot in midfield.
Juventus will begin the campaign as favourites, thanks largely to the departures at Inter. It was known Inter would need to cut costs this summer, the Chinese owners Suning racking up unsustainable financial losses even before Covid arrived. Still, fans had hoped, after Conte’s departure, that the sale of Hakimi would be enough.
Lukaku’s sale was a body-blow. He led Inter in goals and assists last season but, more than that, he became a symbol of the club: the player who dragged his team forward on the pitch and rode around town after the title win with his head out of the sunroof, joining supporters in celebration.
He had reported early for pre-season training and spoke enthusiastically about his future at the club just days before signing for Chelsea. The sense of betrayal among fans may never fully heal, but Conte’s replacement, Simone Inzaghi, must make do. He performed a U-turn of his own this summer, joining Inter one day after agreeing terms on a proposed contract renewal at Lazio.
Instead of Lukaku, he will have Edin Dzeko as his No 9. Although the Bosnian’s talent is not in doubt, these moves speak for themselves. Inter have sold a striker for a club record €115m and replaced him with a 35-year-old free transfer whom Roma were happy to get off the wage bill after an injury-disrupted last season in the capital.
Perhaps Inzaghi will make it work. Inter conceded the fewest goals in Serie A last season with a back three of Milan Skriniar, Stefan de Vrij and Alessandro Bastoni that ought to remain unchanged. They still have Nicolò Barella and Marcelo Brozovic in midfield and Lautaro Martínez up front. Who know if Christian Eriksen will play football again, but they have added Hakan Calhanoglu from rivals Milan.
This campaign is likely to be defined by how well new managers – Inzaghi among them – succeed in implementing their ideas. Of last season’s top 10, only Milan and Atalanta have the same men in charge.
José Mourinho has major hurdles to clear at Roma, but there is exciting talent in his squad, including Nicolò Zaniolo, who all of Italy is eager to see back after a year-and-a-half lost to successive cruciate injuries. Tammy Abraham offers Roma something they have not had for years: a striker who can play on the shoulder of opposing defenders and fight for the spaces in behind.
Maurizio Sarri fills Inzaghi’s spot at Lazio, one season removed from his own title win at Juventus. Napoli, another of his former clubs, could be a dark horse for the Scudetto if they continue to avoid any major departures. Luciano Spalletti was a serial runner-up at Roma, but inherits a deep squad in Naples and would only need to keep the club-record signing Victor Osimhen healthy to hold a stronger hand than Gennaro Gattuso did last year.
Or perhaps it will be those clubs who chose to stick instead of twist who push on. Milan lost Donnarumma and Calhanoglu, but their signing of Olivier Giroud will offer Stefano Pioli a much-needed alternative – and perhaps also a complement – to Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front. Atalanta sold Cristian Romero to Tottenham, but when has Gian Piero Gasperini allowed the loss of any one player to cause his team to miss a beat?
There will be plenty of intrigue away from the title race. Can Fiorentina hold on to Dusan Vlahovic and will their new manager, Vincenzo Italiano, have them back challenging for a European spot if they do? Is Ivan Juric the man to finally get Torino playing up to their talent level? How many more times will Genoa sack, and then reappoint, Davide Ballardini?
Venezia were the last of the promoted teams to secure their place, arriving via a play-off win over Cittadella, and to see one of Italy’s most famous cities represented in the footballing top-flight again for the first time in 20 years is a thrill. They have recruited far and wide this summer, including intriguing deals for the 19-year-old US internationals Gianluca Busio and Tanner Tessmann.
Salernitana have been away even longer – 23 years – during which time the club went bankrupt twice and needed to be reformed. Empoli’s absence has been shorter, but that does not mean they will be any less enthusiastic to return.
The new Serie A season could never live up to Italy’s most extraordinary sporting summer. Even so, there are plenty of feelgood stories to be found.