Transfer traffic has been too one way in Serie A
An Italian season seldom begins without some introspection, awkward questions surrounding the status of Serie A relative to its fellow heavyweight leagues in Europe.
Once again, a caravan of exciting and talented footballers have animated the Italian transfer window, with more of them exiting than so far coming in.
If Alexis Sanchez, the Chilean winger who helped Udinese to reach fourth place last May, was always likely to move on to a club who regularly aspire to major trophies, then it can only be considered a minor snub to the likes of AC Milan and Inter Milan that he chose to join Barcelona, in Spain.
It is when a bright young talent, such as Javier Pastore, the 22-year-old Argentine, whose career was developing at Palermo, commands a fee so out of reach of the traditional Italian big-spenders and moves to Paris Saint-Germain, or when Anzhi Makhachkala, a Dagestan club, can persuade Inter and Samuel Eto'o, their most reliable striker, that the Russian league should be his lucrative future, that Italy, once at the top of the hierarchy, notes that more and more of the biggest coffers are elsewhere.
None of which means that, globally, Italy's league has ceased to be anticipated and watched more widely than any domestic competition apart from the English Premier League and the two-horse race that is Spain's Liga.
Serie A is not a duopoly. Though Milan, the defending champions, and Inter, the 2011 runners-up, start as favourites for the title, Juventus have freshened up sufficiently to promote optimism.
Juve, undistracted by European competition, have a new head coach, Antonio Conte, who guided Siena to promotion from Serie B last May. He will look at this challenge, through his piercing blue eyes, as better timed for him than it was for the last, young, former Juve captain who took over as coach, Ciro Ferrara, who lasted barely a season. Conte's home debut will coincide with Juve's move to a refurbished home, at the old Delle Alpi site.
Although Juve lost out to Manchester City in the chase for Sergio Aguero, his squad has been significantly strengthened: Stephan Lichtsteiner and Arturo Vidal come into a defence that showed repeated flaws in 2010/11, while Mirko Vucinic, signed from Roma, knows the way to goal in Serie A.
Napoli, third last term, have signed well with the addition of Gokhan Inler in midfield, and have kept hold of Edinson Cavani, their leading goalscorer last season, but have the added burden of the Champions League, at least until Christmas.
Udinese, meanwhile, seem bound to find another podium finish hard without Sanchez and Inler, even if the evergreen Antonio Di Natale continues scoring and providing goals at the rate of the last two years. Besides, the podium has just got smaller. Three, rather than four, Serie A clubs will qualify for the Champions League in 2012/13, making the fight for bronze as potentially gripping as was the tussle for fourth place last spring.
Lazio, fifth last time, have an inkling that experience might make the difference. They have contributed to the stereotype held by many outsiders of Italian football as a cavern of veterans, welcoming Miroslav Klose - the 33 year old who has, for a while, combined being the first choice centre-forward for Germany with a substitute role at Bayern Munich - and Djibril Cisse, 30, to the blue half of the capital.
Roma, by contrast, have opted heavily for youth in the transfer market.
What Serie A really needs to do to answer the awkward questions about its standards and qualities is to send another team to the Champions League final, won by Inter in 2010 and by Milan in 2007.
Once more, those two clubs lead the assault on Europe, with Milan hopeful that a deeper squad makes them more competitive abroad.
Philippe Mexes and Taye Taiwo come into the defence, two footballers with ability but requiring careful man-management, the area in which Max Allegri, the coach, excelled in his first 12 months in charge of the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robinho, Rino Gattuso and Antonio Cassano.
Inter, without the dynamic Eto'o, need to avoid the fatigue that affected them last autumn. They start the campaign with a third different head coach, Gian Piero Gasperini. He at least knows the division well, after four years at Genoa.
For that, Gasperini will recognise the latest urgent question of Serie A's close-season. Four days before the kick-off it was not 'Where do we stand as a league?', but 'Will it actually start?' The players union had threatened a strike this coming weekend, with their contractual rights the central issue of a long-term disagreement with the league.
No less untidy was the start to the summer, when the awkward questions were being asked by prosecutors and answered by defence lawyers.
A match-fixing scandal casts a shadow, though not on the scale of the 2006 calciopoli affair, in which Juventus and Milan were punished.
From this weekend, there will be an asterisk next to newly-promoted Atalanta's name in the table, signifying that six points have already been docked from them for the alleged involvement of some of their players in illegal betting rings.
Serie A could do with a long spell free of such taints.
Published: August 25, 2011 04:00 AM