On the surface, nothing had changed. The new Italian football season began as the previous domestic one had ended, with Juventus scooping up silverware. The Bianconeri beat Lazio in the Supercoppa Italiana, repeating the outcome of May’s Coppa Italia final. Even the number of goals that they scored – two – was the same.
“Juventus always win!” exclaimed the front page of Corriere dello Sport. Such words might equally have conveyed a sense of delight or despair. The Old Lady has ridden roughshod through the field for four years now, collecting eight trophies in total and finishing 17 points clear of their closest Serie A rivals in each of the past two seasons. Without genuine competition, any league runs the risk of growing stale.
For once, though, this was not the same old story. Juventus have, in reality, been at the forefront of a summer of extraordinary renewal in the Italian top flight. Their goalscorers against Lazio were Mario Mandzukic and Paulo Dybala, both newly acquired for a combined fee of more than €50m. When it comes to Serie A’s summer spending, that is only the tip of the iceberg.
It was not yet the end of June when Gazzetta dello Sport published a breathless report into the transfer investments being made up and down the peninsula. According to the pink paper, Serie A teams had already splashed out €266.35m on new players – more than at the corresponding point of the previous two years combined. The figure has since risen to more than €500m.
“Austerity? In Serie A it’s already over,” declared a headline in La Repubblica last week. But perhaps that sentiment only really applies for a select few. The same newspaper’s numbers revealed almost three-quarters of the money spent so far has come from four clubs: Juventus, Milan, Internazionale and Roma.
That the champions had funds at their disposal was hardly a secret. Juventus have been growing their revenues for years, both through their new stadium and better exploitation of commercial opportunities. Last year’s run to the Champions League final brought a further cash windfall.
Even so, few had anticipated such a drastic overhaul. Andrea Pirlo’s departure was widely foretold but fans had hoped Carlos Tevez would hang around one more year. Arturo Vidal’s sale to Bayern Munich was even more of a surprise.
The club appears to have replaced these players astutely. Dybala, Mandzukic and Simone Zaza offer a range of different playing styles and experience with which to find the goals Tevez would have scored. Sami Khedira is a different player to Vidal but, when fit, can restore some of the muscle that the Chilean brought to the midfield. Alex Sandro can be the long-term replacement for Patrice Evra on the left of defence.
Juventus continue to seek another creative influence but in the meantime have given Paul Pogba the No10 shirt. The Frenchman must show he is capable of growing into the creative fulcrum of this team.
If the victory over Lazio suggested Juventus remain formidable then it is hard to imagine any side undertaking such changes without some growing pains. Even the manager, Massimiliano Allegri, believes “things will be more difficult” this time around.
Who, though, is ready to challenge? Roma, runners-up for two years in a row, are the obvious choice and have addressed their weaknesses up front with the additions of Edin Dzeko, Iago Falqué and Mohamed Salah. This is, though, still a team that regressed badly in the second half of last season, amid suggestions the manager, Rudi García, lacked the nous to win the games that mattered most.
Lazio, third last time around, may show further development, although their squad remains thinner than those of their immediate rivals. Investment so far this summer has been modest as the owner, Claudio Lotito, waits on the result of their Champions League play-off against Bayer Leverkusen – the first leg of which Lazio won 1-0 in Rome on Tuesday night.
Napoli are worth keeping tabs on following the appointment of Maurizio Sarri – a man who worked full time as a bank manager as recently as 2002 and has climbed through the divisions the hard way. He arrives from Empoli with a reputation as a defensive whizz – much needed in a team that conceded 73 goals in all competitions last season.
The greatest intrigue, however, surrounds the two Milan clubs after their adventurous transfer campaigns. Inter’s owner, Erick Thohir, was supposed to be focused on getting his team financial fair play compliant but instead went out and made Geoffrey Kondogbia the third-most expensive player in the club’s history – behind Christian Vieri and Hernán Crespo – at €30m.
That deal was offset by the sale of Mateo Kovacic to Real Madrid for a similar sum but Inter have also reinforced elsewhere. Up front, Stevan Jovetic arrives with a proven track record of scoring goals in Serie A. In central defence, Miranda and Jeison Murillo can hardly do worse than the men who came before them.
Milan have spent even more freely, their coffers boosted by Bee Taechaubol’s investment in the club. With Sinisa Mihajlovic installed as the manager and fully signed up to Silvio Berlusconi’s vision for a return to an attacking 4-3-1-2, the Rossoneri rushed out to sign the strikers Carlos Bacca and Luiz Adriano – both of whom have scored more than 20 goals in each of their past two seasons.
Those additions were supplemented with an injection of Italian youth, with the midfielder Andrea Bertolacci and centre-back Alessio Romagnoli joining for a combined €45m. Both were owned by Roma, though each had been playing elsewhere, on co-ownership and loan deals respectively, last term.
On paper, these are impressive additions. In practice, only time will tell if they can live up to Mihajlovic’s suggestion the Rossoneri are ready to challenge for the title. Results in pre-season have been mixed for Milan and Inter but must be taken with a large spoon of salt. Juventus did, after all, lose their first friendly of the post-Antonio Conte era 3-2 against the amateur side Lucento.
For now, what we have is uncertainty that stretches from the top of the division right down to the bottom. How will tiny Frosinone and Carpi get on? Can Mattia Destro make good on his promise at Bologna? Will Sampdoria regret reuniting with Antonio Cassano? How will Atalanta, after bringing tanks and MiG fighter jets to previous fan rallies, top the spaceship that Edy Reja rode in on at the Festa della Dea last month?
These are only a few of the many questions that need answering in a season during which Udinese will unveil their purpose-built stadium and goalline technology will be used for the first time. Beneath the surface, Serie A continues to change.