Serie A preview: Napoli title favourites but face renewed challenge from rivals

New season begins with another fluid title race expected as Claudio Ranieri makes his return to top flight

Cagliari coach Claudio Ranieri and his players celebrate being promoted to Serie A on June 8, 2023. AP
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From his outpost on the island of Sardinia, Claudio Ranieri says he is "closing a circle". This most worldly of football coaches, architect of Leicester City’s stunning English Premier League title of 2016, ex manager of numerous clubs in Italy, Spain, England and France, is back in top flight football. He is 71, the wise man of a Serie A season that begins this weekend.

The Ranieri circle at Cagliari is, like that Leicester story, a fairytale within a remarkable career. Thirty-three years ago, he was a young coach who guided Cagliari to successive promotions and into Italy’s top division. In June he repeated that ascent, a dramatic feat given that back in December, when Ranieri was offered his 22nd coaching job, the Cagliari who had turned to him sat 14th in Serie B.

Ranieri hoisted them upwards, and back from 2-0 down in their play-off semi-final against Parma, claiming the last remaining spot in the top division of Italy with an injury-time goal against Bari in June’s promotion play-off final. Ranieri shed tears of joy.

Back in 1990, when he last took Cagliari into a top-tier campaign, Italy had the sport’s most glamorous league. It drew Europe’s best stars, its stadiums had just hosted a World Cup. Its defences were wrought out of iron, goals notoriously hard to come by. Goalkeepers were still allowed to handle passes from the feet of outfield colleagues. Tackles were brutal. It was still three decades before VAR started elevating the number of penalties.

The Serie A Ranieri revisits for this bonus - and perhaps final - return, is very different. The budgets of its clubs now fall way behind their peers in the Premier League and the monied elites of Germany, France, Spain and Saudi Arabia, but Ranieri can detect a refreshing breeze.

Italy is home to fluid title races, with four different champions in the last four years. The latest of them, Napoli brought the scudetto, the league trophy, back to the south after a gap as long as Ranieri’s top-flight managerial career.

They were dazzling champions, playing with width, energy and adventure and although Napoli will be under new management in 2023-24 - Frenchman Rudi Garcia replacing Luciano Spalletti, who chose to take a career break after his title triumph - they begin the campaign as the team to catch.

So far in a transfer window that closes at the end of this month, the main intrusion on their plans has been Bayern Munich’s purchase of the central defender Kim Min-jae. Garcia should take a forward line still including Victor Osimhen, last season’s Serie A top scorer and Kvicha Kvaratskhelia, the best provider of assists, to newly promoted Frosinone on Saturday hopeful both will still be around into September.

Back in 1990, when Ranieri celebrated his first Cagliari promotion, you could win an 18-team Serie A with a total 57 league goals, as Napoli and Sampdoria did in successive years. These days, you need to be averaging closer to two goals a game.

Among the challengers for Napoli’s crown, there is a leaning towards greater energy in attack. AC Milan, the champions in 2022, have signed wide, fast forwards in Christian Pulisic from Chelsea, and Samuel Chukwueze from Villarreal, potentially exciting complements to Rafael Leao, the star of their front-line.

Marcus Thuram, the France striker, has joined Inter Milan - the Serie A winners in 2021. Youth is superseding age: Pulisic, 24, will be wearing the No 11 Milan jersey vacated by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, 41 and retired; Thuram, 26, takes the Inter No 9 shirt last worn by Edin Dzeko, 37.

Juventus, hit last season by points deductions and banned from European competition for a year because of accounting irregularities, have said good-bye to veterans like Leo Bonucci, Juan Cuadrado and Angel di Maria, while wondering if, a year after his return to the club, Paul Pogba - who was kept out by injury for the best part of 12 months - can make Juve the force they were through nine successive scudetti up until 2020.

With no involvement in Europe, Juventus may have a stamina advantage over domestic rivals. “For 13 years I’ve been used to preparing for two games a week,” said head coach Max Allegri. “So I have to get used to that. If we are in the title-race in March, then maybe that will be a plus.”

If this season is like last, then Europe will be keeping other Italian clubs busy well beyond March. Inter, in the Champions League; Jose Mourinho’s Roma, in the Europa League; and Fiorentina, in the Uefa Conference League, were all finalists. That’s ample evidence that Serie A has real competitive depth. The next step in the league’s journey to the pre-eminence Ranieri can vividly recall from the early 1990s would be Italian clubs winning gold, not silver, medals in those sorts of finals.

Updated: August 18, 2023, 4:56 AM