Serie A clubs excited for new season
A true gentleman: Italian Footballers' Association president, Damiano Tommasi, helped end the Serie A strike earlier in the week. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)
Giampaolo Pazzini ran behind the goal towards the cameras pointing to his eyes, the trademark celebration of Italy's center-forward. Seconds earlier he had seized upon a knock down from Mario Balotelli and thrust a shot beyond Slovenia goalkeeper Jasmin Handanovic. It came late (with six minutes of the match remaining), but Pazzini's strike, the third of his international career, was enough to book his country's place at Euro 2012.
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli saluted the 18,000 fans in attendance at the Artemio Franchi, the ground where he'd consolidated a promising reputation as coach of Fiorentina and a fitting setting to successfully accomplish his first objective since taking charge of the national team last summer.
The atmosphere was sedate, owing in no small measure to Florence's indifferent attitude towards the Azzurri, a grievance dating back to the 1990 UEFA Cup final when, after scuffles between Fiorentina and Juventus fans during the first leg in Turin, the President of the Italian Football Federation Antonio Matarrese decided that the second leg should be played not at the Artemio Franchi, but on neutral turf in Avellino.
A sense of injustice prevailed, as Fiorentina lost the final 3-1 on aggregate, blaming the FIGC for controversially depriving the club of any home advantage. So when Italy hosted a friendly with Mexico at the Artemio Franchi in 1993, the locals turned up wearing sombreros and supported the away side instead. Although based in Coverciano, a leafy quarter in north-east Florence, the national team didn't play in the city again until 2006.
All that, of course, shouldn't cloud the brightened horizons which have appeared under Prandelli's management. Italy qualified for the championships in Poland and Ukraine with two games to spare, a marked change to their habit of leaving it to the last minute. They won seven of their eight matches in Group C and have conceded only one goal thus far.
This is a welcome backdrop to the start of the season in Italy, which finally gets underway on Friday after the strike called by the AIC, the Italian players' association, was thankfully called off following the decision to sign a new contract, albeit one that will expire on June 30, 2012.
How long the phony peace lasts remains to be seen.
But for now, it's time to look forward, not back, with champions Milan starting their title defense at home to dark horses Lazio in an intriguing curtain raiser.
Opener: The Leaders versus Chasers
Few are prepared to look beyond the holders to do anything but retain their crown. After all, Milan is settled, Max Allegri knows his best starting XI, and the club added depth rather than any new elements to their squad.
Lazio, on the other hand, have moved to address the shortcomings of last season. Edy Reja's side missed out on qualifying for the Champions League on goal difference in May, but the additions of Miroslav Klose and Djibril Cisse, a pair of well-seasoned strikers who have made the net bulge a combined 385 times in their career, should ensure that Lazio continues to percolate in the European landscape.
Shoring Up A Dark Horse
Attention switches on Saturday to Napoli's trip to the Dino Manuzzi where they take on Cesena. Napoli, last year’s third place finisher and anointed challengers for the Scudetto, have balance and identity.
At the front, striker Edinson Cavani broke Napoli's single season scoring record set by Antonio Vojak in 1933, and at the back, goalkeeper Morgan de Sanctis went 799 minutes unbeaten to surpass the milestone set by Luciano Castellini in 1982. The only missing link for Napoli was a difference maker in the midfield.
Gökhan Inler's long awaited signing from Udinese changes that, as Napoli now have that rare alchemy of playmaker and holder scheming at the center of the pitch.
Cesena, however, will be confident that they can throw a spanner in the works. New manager Marco Giampaolo is renowned for his organizational skills, but this team won't be oriented solely around a watertight defense.
By enticing Adrian Mutu away from Fiorentina, Cesena has taken a high risk-high reward transfer strategy. If he keeps out of trouble and reproduces the strike rate that made him one of Serie A's most dangerous attacking players of the last decade, then the Emilia-Romagna outfit should consolidate their place in the top flight.
New Digs For An Old Lady
Fancy home: Juventus will host Serie A competition at their new state-of-the-art pitch, Juventus Stadium. (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
Sunday's lunchtime kick-off sees Juventus welcome Parma to the club's new 41,000-seater stadium. Since Andrea Agnelli became president and Beppe Marotta his general manager a year ago, the Old Lady has spent almost €87 million on 23 new players. No one has changed so much over the same period.
The system is the same, a 4-4-2 evolving into a 4-2-4, and there are reservations about Andrea Pirlo being overrun in midfield. Yet the return of Antonio Conte, an icon of lo stile Juve, a boyhood fan and captain of the club, as the team's new head coach is an indication that all the board feel is missing from Juventus becoming competitive again is a winning mentality.
That weakness was laid bare when Parma last visited Turin in January, leaving with a 4-1 win. Two of those goals were scored by Sebastian Giovinco, once tipped as Alessandro Del Piero's successor. He is now the little man on whose shoulders Parma's hopes of avoiding another relegation dogfight rest.
George Orwell’s Pick
Over in the capital, Roma's homage to Catalonia is an admirable project. But with a new owner in Thomas Di Benedetto, a new coach in Luis Enrique and a raft of new players, the project requires patience and commitment, not least from captain Francesco Totti, on whom the spotlight has already fallen after his reported unhappiness at being benched in the first leg of Roma's Europa League tie with Slovan Bratislava before being substituted in the second leg.
The honeymoon, it seems, is already over among a section of the supporters and the local media, but that shouldn't come as a complete surprise. The Eternal city has always given the impression that it is desperately short of time, a trait shared by Cagliari President Massimo Cellino who made Roberto Donadoni the first coaching casualty of the season.
The permed former winger was given his marching orders before a ball had even been kicked following a dispute over transfers and his agent. Massimo Ficcadenti has stepped in; his candidacy boosted by a remarkable second half of the season at Cesena.