Where will transfers matter in Serie A?

A week after the transfer window closed, the dust (or should that be the snow) is still settling in Italy. Serie A’s 20 clubs spent approximately $79 million in total this winter. A year ago that figure bought Chelsea one Fernando Torres, a cautionary tale indeed. The headline grabbing big name signing never happened, though not, it must be said, for want of trying.

Milan chief executive Adriano Galliani claims he is “still in shock” and “will go to a psychologist for a few months” to find closure for not crafting a deal with Manchester City for Carlos Tévez, while Lazio owner Claudio Lotito and his director of sport Igli Tare are themselves considering counseling to come to terms with not coming to terms with CSKA Moscow for Keisuke Honda.

Teased throughout January, it wasn’t surprising in light of the collapse of these high profile transfers that Italy’s papers decided to take a dim view of the state of Italian soccer. “The great players choose other leagues,” wrote La Repubblica. “The insult, though, is that when they do opt for Serie A, like Tévez and Honda did, our clubs don’t have the money to buy them.”

That’s a little harsh. This transfer window must be seen in the context of the recession in Italy and in particular the appearance on the horizon of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations. Taken together, the deficits announced by Milan, Juventus and Inter in their latest sets of accounts came to $332 million. There’s relatively little room to maneuver, but maneuver they did, and to interesting effect.

It’s worth remembering that at the end of last season, Milan’s moves in the January transfer window were hailed for swinging the balance further in their favor in the title race. Mark van Bommel and Antonio Cassano both made their presence felt in the run-in towards the club’s 18th Scudetto. Did anyone then gain an advantage this January?

Il Corriere della Sera suggested that Juventus had ‘beaten’ Milan this time around. Considering they each strengthened in the same areas, a simple like-for-like comparison was enough of an explanation. Juventus’ Martín Cáceres, Simone Padoin and Marco Borriello were seen to trump Milan’s Djamel Mesbah, Sulley Muntari and Maxi Lopez. Crude though it is, it’s hard to dispute that.

Some will try, but the case is difficult to argue. Cáceres is a welcome return. The club and the player know each other well after a loan spell at the club a season and a half ago. Since then, he has improved notably. Padoin replaces the departing Michele Pazienza. He’s a safe pair of hands – a man Conte trusts from their brief time together at Atalanta. Moreover, the clichéd ‘new signing’ in midfield is the emerging academy graduate and local boy Luca Marrone, who’s coming off impressive cameo performances against Lecce, Atalanta and Roma.

Marco Borriello’s loan from Roma to Serie A-leading Juventus gives Antonio Conte another option in an already deep attack. (Photo credit: Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)

Then of course there’s Borriello. Unwanted by the fans, he wasn’t an obvious priority given the team already looked well-stocked up front with Alessandro Matri, Mirko Vucinic, Fabio Quagliarella and Alessandro Del Piero. While concerns linger that he might unsettle the other goal-getters and breed insecurity, Borriello is at least another proven weapon in Conte’s arsenal to be called upon should his teammates start firing blanks. Credit is also due at Juventus for finally getting Amauri, Vincenzo Iaquinta, Marco Motta and Luca Toni off the payroll.

As for Inter, the jury is still out. On the one hand, selling Thiago Motta to Paris Saint-Germain for $15.8 million represents good business. Why? Because he wanted to leave, Inter got the price they wanted, they cut costs and still managed to bring in another pair of midfielders ( Sampdoria’s Angelo Palombo and Porto’s Freddy Guarín) on short-term loans worth $3 million (with options to buy in the summer).

On the other hand, though, they undermined their coach, Claudio Ranieri, who asked that Motta not be sold, they did not replace him with a player of similar creativity and tempo-setting ability, nor did they satisfy his request for a wide player. It was classic pazza Inter.

Take Guarín for instance. Signed with a view to replacing the injury-prone veteran Dejan Stankovic, his medical revealed a groin problem, yet the deal was still rubber-stamped, even though he will be out for a month and is ineligible for the Champions League.

Inter are prepared to swallow that in the short-term, but consider this: In his three-and-half seasons at Porto, Guarín played more than 20 league games only once. While he made the highlight reels for incredible rasping long-range goals-of-the-season (like the one he scored against Maritímo a year ago), for every shot that found the back of the net, another 10 hit row Z. If he returns to fitness and stays that way, he could, at 25, prove a long-term hit, but until he makes good on that promise, Porto are entitled to think that, in the event Inter actually do take up the $17 million option to sign Guarín in the summer, they’ve got the better end of the deal.

So on balance the overwhelming sensation is that, while Juventus just about got the better of their rivals, it’s unlikely that any of the business done by the so-called Big Three will dramatically shift the balance at the top of the table. It’s a different story, however, farther down the table, where the comings and goings might determine qualifying for Europe or relegation.

Udinese’s aspirations of reaching the Champions League preliminary stages for a second straight season were boosted by the acquisition of a do-it-all player like Pazienza from Juventus, though Mehdi Benatia’s and Kwadwo Asamoah’s returns from the African Cup of Nations will give the team another lift.

As mentioned on Monday, Lazio’s ambitions have lowered somewhat since the failure to sign Honda. The club has shot itself in the foot in more ways than the faux pas of bringing in Antonio Candreva, a self-proclaimed Roma supporter. By letting Djibril Cissé and Giuseppe Sculli go, they’re desperately short of bodies up front, a fact brought home by Tommaso Rocchi’s injury at the weekend. There’ll be no rest for Miroslav Klose.

Staying in the Eternal City, any concern that Roma’s squad depth had got perilously shallow with the departures of David Pizarro to Manchester City (replaced in body if not in mind by Marquinho) and in particular Borriello at a time when Pablo Daniel Osvaldo was injured have been offset. The team’s performances and the room freed up in wages made the project-defining move of tying down talismanic midfielder Daniele De Rossi to a new five-year contract possible. The revelation that it doesn’t include a buy-out clause ends any uncertainty regarding his future.

In January, Napoli won the race to sign Universidad de Chile start Eduardo Vargas (L) . (Photo credit: Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)

Napoli’s capture of the exciting Edu Vargas from Universidad de Chile for $17 million also caught the imagination. He has been hyped through the roof. While there is a chance he might yet become the latest talent from South America to flourish in Serie A after Javier Pastore and Alexis Sanchez, it will take time, and time isn’t something Napoli have right now. Even if it was important to strike early and beat the competition to Vargas’s signature, there is a sense that, with Napoli down in seventh place, what they really needed was a player who could make an immediate impact and give the team a chance of finishing on the podium again.

Hitting the ground running is what every club hopes for from a new signing in January. La Gazzetta dello Sport held a poll on that very subject earlier this week. They asked: ‘Who among the new signings will have the most influence on the results of their new team?’ Thirty-one percent said Amauri at Fiorentina. That might come as surprise after his expensive flop at Juventus. But the striker showed by scoring seven goals in 11 appearances while on loan at Parma in the second half of last season that he can still do a good job for teams outside the scrutiny of Turin. A six-month contract works for everyone, as it’s up to the player to demonstrate with facts not words that he deserves renewal.

Behind Amauri in the poll was his predecessor at Fiorentina, Alberto Gilardino. He chalked up 28% of the vote following his $11 million switch to Genoa. Though he turns 30 in the summer and has put pen-to-paper on a lengthy four-and-a-half year deal, this is thought of by many as not only the best of Genoa’s seven January signings but the best of the whole window.

Despite fears that ‘the light has gone out’ and that he’s no longer the player he was (something he strenuously denies), Gilardino has scored 142 goals in Serie A. That’s more than anyone else still active in the league except Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero, Toto Di Natale and Pippo Inzaghi. What’s more, Marassi has been kind to goalscorers in recent memory. It’s enough to think about Borriello in the 2007-08 season and Diego Milito in the following campaign.

Other transfers deserving of an honorable mention include Palermo’s co-ownership of Italy international goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano from Inter. Back from a serious knee injury, his presence between the sticks in their last four games has coincided with a promising run of 10 points from a possible 12.

Down in the drop zone, there’s romance to be had in Valeri Bojinov’s return to Lecce, the club where he burst on to the scene, but whether he can rediscover the form he showed as a young kid and fulfill his potential is subject to debate after so many surgeries. More intriguing is the new strike partnership of Andrea Caracciolo and Giuseppe Mascara at Novara, but if the team keeps on conceding at its current rate (42 goals after 22 games) then whatever they achieve up front will have a hollow significance.

Of course, the next six months and beyond will tell us a lot more about the hits and the misses of the January transfer window. Now comes the fun part: sitting back and watching.