Last season’s runner-up Napoli impressed in Rafa Benitez’s debut Sunday, comfortably beating Bologna 3-0 in its Serie A opener and immediately stating its intent to challenge two-time defending champion Juventus.
After former Real Madrid forward Jose Maria Callejon put Napoli ahead in the 32nd, Marek Hamsik added goals in the 45th and 63rd as fans wondered if this might be the year that their squad breaks the northern grip on the Italian league title.
Northern squads Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan have won the last 11 Serie A titles, while Napoli hasn’t finished top since Diego Maradona led the southern club to its only two championships in 1987 and 1990.
Perhaps in anticipation of celebrations, Napoli even had American-style cheerleaders inside the San Paolo stadium.
It was also a positive debut for former Napoli coach Walter Mazzarri with Inter, which got late goals from Yuto Nagatomo and Rodrigo Palacio for a 2-0 win over Genoa.
And Lazio bounced back from its 4-0 loss to Juventus in the Super Cup by beating visiting Udinese 2-1 with first-half goals from Hernanes and Antonio Candreva.
Lazio had to play with one end of the Stadio Olimpico closed as punishment for fan racism in the Super Cup. As a response, the Roman club’s players wore shirts with a message that read ”We love football, we fight racism.”
Lazio’s rival Roma had a good start, too, with Daniele De Rossi and Alessandro Florenzi scoring two minutes apart midway through the second half for a 2-0 win at promoted Livorno.
There was a curious moment in the first half, as new Roma coach Rudi Garcia was seen talking on his cell phone as he sat on the bench, presumably with an assistant in the tribune.
Elsewhere, Cagliari beat Atalanta 2-1 in Trieste, where it is playing due to troubles with its stadium; Torino spoiled Sassuolo’s Serie A debut with a 2-0 win and Parma was held to a 0-0 draw at home by Chievo Verona despite solid play from newly signed Antonio Cassano.
On Saturday, Juventus began its bid for a third straight title with a 1-0 win at Sampdoria while Milan was stunned 2-1 by newly promoted Hellas Verona, which got two goals from Luca Toni.
The first round concludes Monday with Fiorentina facing Catania.
In Naples, the hosts were in control from the start as Callejon hit the post six minutes in then redirected in a rebound of a shot from Hamsik to give Napoli the lead.
Gonzalo Higuain, who has replaced the departed Edinson Cavani at the center of Napoli’s attack, had a goal disallowed for offside in the 40th.
Hamsik doubled the lead in first-half added time, dribbling by the goalkeeper and finding the target with a sharply angled shot.
Higuain again came close in the 51st, sending a free kick around Bologna’s wall just wide, and Hamsik capped a classy performance by firing in from the edge of the area after Higuain was denied.
At the San Siro, Japan international Nagatomo headed in from point-blank range in the 75th following a deflected cross from Jonathan and Argentina striker Palacio doubled the lead in added time after an excellent through ball from Fredy Guarin.
Neither team had an attempt on target until a header from Inter substitute Mauro Icardi was blocked by goalkeeper Mattia Perin in the 53rd.
But Inter was in full control by the end and Icardi hit the crossbar with a header in the 82nd while Andrea Ranocchia had a header tipped wide by Perin a minute later.
While it didn’t come easily, the result was significant for an Inter squad that finished ninth and had 16 losses last season, its worst effort in 65 years.
”It’s a good start but we’re only at the beginning. We need to improve a lot of things but we’re on the right road,” Inter midfielder Ricardo Alvarez said.
Mazzarri, who managed Napoli the past four seasons, was hired immediately after Andrea Stramaccioni was let go by Inter at the end of last season.
”These guys hadn’t won at home in 4 1/2 months. We needed to exorcise a psychosis. And we did,” Mazzarri said. ”We’re improving more than I thought. We’ve done a lot in a short amount of time.”
In Rome, Hernanes put Lazio ahead in the 13th with an impressive shot past two defenders from a sharp angle and Antonio Candreva made it 2-0 in the 16th after Miroslav Klose earned a penalty.
Udinese pulled one back on the hour mark when Luis Muriel finished off a counterattack.
It’s been a difficult start for Udinese, which was beat 3-1 at home by Czech side Liberec in the first leg of the Europa League playoffs Thursday.
In Livorno, Roma’s 36-year-old captain Francesco Totti hit the crossbar with a long shot in the 28th but it wasn’t until the 65th that De Rossi broke the deadlock with an effort from long-range to immediately put behind him a season in which he failed to score.
Florenzi doubled Roma’s lead by finishing off a counterattack with a sharply angled shot in the 67th.