Are you ready for some calcio? The Italian Serie A season kicks off Sept. 19 with a doubleheader of Fiorentina vs. Torino, followed by Hellas Verona and AS Roma (watch all Serie A matches all season on ESPN+).
There will be plenty of storylines to watch for throughout the campaign — most notably, can any club finally dethrone nine-time defending champion Juventus? Will Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic continue to play at an elite level and defy Father Time? And could U.S. midfielder Weston McKennie make an impact for new coach Andrea Pirlo at Juve?
Let’s dive into what and who to look for ahead of the season’s opening weekend. Allora!
It will come as no surprise that Juventus — chasing their 10th Serie A title in a row — will be the team to catch. However, on the back of an underwhelming season that saw them finish just a point clear at the top of the table and a rookie manager in Pirlo, there is a feeling they are there to be caught.
Arthur has arrived, unwanted by Barcelona, with Luis Suarez reportedly close to a move to Turin as well, having flown to Italy on Thursday to take a citizenship test. Regardless of whether or not Suarez does join, Miralem Pjanic, Gonzalo Higuain and Blaise Matuidi have moved on, so it remains to be seen whether they have strengthened or indeed weakened their starting lineup.
While Juve may be a daunting move, Herculez Gomez feels it’s an amazing move for Weston McKennie.
Inter Milan, who were runners-up last season, may fancy their chances; and manager Antonio Conte has made it clear it’s now or never for the Nerazzurri as he continues to target experience over youth. Serial title-winner Arturo Vidal was preferred over Sandro Tonali (who joined Milan) in midfield, while Aleksandar Kolarov. Achraf Hakimi, who impressed on loan at Borussia Dortmund last season, has arrived from Real Madrid. Keeping hold of Argentina international Lautaro Martinez in attack could also be a key factor.
It looks likely to be a Derby d’Italia battle for top spot, though Atalanta can’t be ruled out after their astonishing performances over the past two seasons. They were within minutes of a place in the Champions League semifinals before being knocked out in heartbreaking fashion by Paris Saint-Germain late on.
Napoli, Roma and AC Milan are all looking to improve, but would need to go some distance to catch the top two. Meanwhile, Lazio will really feel last season was their chance as they have struggled to seal their top targets in the transfer market this summer. David Silva looked certain to join and add some much-needed flair in midfield, only to sign with La Liga club Real Sociedad at the 11th hour instead. That decision didn’t sit well with Lazio’s sporting director, Igli Tare, which hints at the stress within the club. — Andrew Cesare Richardson
Ronaldo or Zlatan: Who is more motivated?
It’s easy to forget amid the hype around how well others played last season, that Cristiano Ronaldo still scored a remarkable 31 goals in 33 Serie A games, and Juventus won the league. So working off that basis, to talk about Ronaldo’s transience is ridiculous. Yet there’s still this lingering feeling Juventus have not yet got the best out of him.
Juve have been looking for a pressing forward all summer — someone who can chase the lost causes, letting Ronaldo do his thing — as Juventus seek to replicate the partnership with Karim Benzema that served Real Madrid so well. Aged 35 years old and in ridiculous shape, Ronaldo still has at least four years at the top, while Ibrahimovic, who can happily take away some spotlight from Juventus, is continuing to defy Father Time at the age of 38 years old.
Gab & Juls explain why Andrea Pirlo has a tougher job at Juventus than Zinedine Zidane did at Real Madrid.
Ibrahimovic’s contract saga over the summer was symptomatic of the past and future visions of Milan. He is still an exceptional player, but while they are trying to evolve and catch up on years of waste and mismanagement, the Swede is still king at the San Siro. After joining Milan in January, he was one of the prime reasons for their renaissance under Stefano Pioli — contributing 10 goals in 18 league games — and with Ante Rebic and Tonali on board at Milan, Ibrahimovic has some wonderful lieutenants to work with.
Ultimately, expect this season to be one where Ronaldo makes a bigger, consistent impact on Serie A, but not for want of some spectacular Zlatan moments. — Hamilton
New players to watch
Serie A sides have spent a total of £540 million (to date) on 129 players. We can expect more deals before the window closes on Oct. 5, but of the transfers completed so far, Arthur is a fascinating piece of business for Juventus, having signed him for £64m from Barcelona. He will aid their transitions and will love working under Pirlo. He will link up with Weston McKennie at Juve (more on him later) and while Dejan Kulusevski was signed in January, this will be his first season at the champions.
Elsewhere, Hakimi is a fantastic signing for Inter Milan, who bought the right back in for a cut price £36m from Real Madrid. Having shone for Borussia Dortmund last season, Hakimi was one of the most in-demand defenders in world football, but Inter moved quickly to sign their man. They will likely be the team to push Juventus the hardest. (Keep an eye on Alexis Sanchez to see if he can escape his wilderness years after two disappointing seasons.)
Aleksandar Kolorov is a short-term answer to their left-back conundrum, bringing his usual grit and jackhammer of a left foot from set pieces, while Nicolo Barella and Stefano Sensi, recruited from Cagliari and Sassuolo, are smart bits of business.
Nicky Bandini thinks Antonio Conte will feel the pressure to win with Inter Milan this season.
Lazio have strengthened their options in the forwards with Kosovan striker Vedat Muriqi, but the marquee striker signing was made by Napoli, who recruited Victor Osimhen from Lille for £63m. He will offer a cutting edge to Genaro Gattuso’s side and is certain to make an impact in Serie A.
Elsewhere Roma have brought in Pedro from Chelsea, but still have business to do, Fiorentina have made a smart signing in bringing Sofyan Amrabat from Verona, Cagliari are closing in on the age-defying Diego Godin while Milan have moved to extend Ibrahimovic’s deal, signed the incredibly promising Tonali and loaned Brahim Diaz off Milan. –– Tom Hamilton
Sibling rivalry between Inzaghi brothers
On the pitch, Filippo Inzaghi was undoubtedly the better-known of the brothers. He was Serie A’s top scorer for Atalanta and also played for Parma, Juventus and most notably Milan. A World Cup-winner with Italy in 2006, he also clinched the Champions League twice — scoring both goals in Milan’s 2007 final win over Liverpool — and was also a runner-up with Juve. He won Serie A three times as well as six other major trophies.
Younger brother Simone, however, was slightly less successful as he spent the majority of his career at Lazio, where he won seven trophies — including a Serie A title and UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup — but was only capped three times for Italy.
As managers, it has been a totally different story. Simone, 44, was sworn in to manage Lazio after Marcelo Bielsa walked out in 2016, and it has been an uphill trajectory since. He has won three major trophies (Coppa Italia once, Italian Supercoppa twice) at a time when Juve have been totally dominant in Italy, and his side’s serious title challenge was only dented due to the coronavirus outbreak. He is considered one of the best Italian managers around.
Filippo, 47, has enjoyed a rollercoaster ride. He got his chance in management in a similar scenario when he was hired at Milan in 2014, only to be sacked after just 12 months, with the team finishing 10th. He then impressively led Venezia to Serie B as champions and immediately into the play-offs before he left to manage Serie A side Bologna but sacked after winning just two of his 21 matches. He lost 2-0 to Simone’s Lazio.
However, last season, he stormed to the Serie B title with Benevento and there is hope he has finally found a playing style that could kickstart his managerial career. — Richardson
After Cristiano Ronaldo hit the 100 goal international milestone, the FC guys praise his longevity of success.
The American contingent is growing in Serie A, both in the boardroom and on the pitch. Juventus signing McKennie is one of the biggest transfers in U.S. soccer history.
Last year he was doing his utmost to right Schalke’s dismal season, but he has earned this move to Juventus (joining on loan with the option to buy, though ESPN sources say the latter part is a mere formality) and will offer an unrelenting engine and leadership to a midfield which also includes Arthur, Rodrigo Bentancur, Aaron Ramsey, Sami Khedira and Rabiot. He will become the sixth American to play in the Italian topflight after Alexi Lalas (Padova 1994-96), Michael Bradley (Chievo, Roma 2011-14), Joshua Perez (Fiorentina 2016-17), Armando Frigo (Fiorentina 1939-42) and Alfonso Negro (Fiorentina, Napoli 1934-38). (Another U.S. international, Oguchi Onyewu, did join AC Milan in 2009 but didn’t make a single Serie A appearance.)
This summer also saw Parma and Roma change hands, with American billionaire Kyle Krauser buying a majority stake in Parma and the Friedkin Group buying Roma from James Pallotta, with Dan Friedkin now owner and president of the Serie A side. They join a league where Fiorentina are owned by Rocco B. Commisso, who purchased the club in June 2019 for €160m, and Milan (Paul Singer, via the Elliott fund). — Hamilton
Ed Dove and Colin Udoh look ahead to Achraf Hakimi’s first season at Inter Milan after his move from Real Madrid.
There is a strong case to be made that AC Milan did the most impressive piece of business in all of Serie A when they sealed the arrival of highly-rated Tonali from Brescia, despite strong interest from Inter Milan.
The 20-year-old is a full Italy international and his signing is a statement that Milan are building to get back to the top. He will immediately improve their starting lineup, while his age means he could become a mainstay for years to come.
As well as McKennie, Juve also signed another exciting young midfield star in Kulusevski, who was sensational on loan at Parma from Atalanta last season. Juve signed him in January, but Parma refused to let him go. Under the tutelage of Pirlo, he could be a star. In Juve’s defensive setup, Demiral showed his class last season and could get more of a run-in alongside Matthijs de Ligt. Elsewhere, Fiorentina have Sofyan Amrabat back from Verona, where he excelled while on loan last season. — Richardson
Five games you won’t want to miss
Juventus vs. Napoli: October 10:
This match pits Pirlo up against his former midfield partner, Gennaro Gattuso, as managers. Together, the pair won two Champions League titles and a World Cup, but it promises to be a fascinating tactical clash on the sidelines given the bitter rivalry between the two clubs.
Inter Milan vs. AC Milan: October 17:
The first Derby della Madonnina of the season will be a true gauge of where both teams are in terms of form and prospects. Inter, under Conte, will be gunning to knock Juventus off their perch, while AC Milan will hope to take back the city bragging rights from their fierce rivals having lived in Inter’s shadow the past few seasons.
Milan vs. Juventus: Jan. 1:
Again, the focus will be on Pirlo, who was let go by Milan in 2011 and allowed to join Juve on a free transfer. He went on to be named Serie A Player of the Year three seasons in a row and won the title four times. A two-time Champions League winner with Milan, it will be an emotional return to San Siro for the Juve boss.
Lazio vs. Roma: Jan. 17:
The Derby della Capitale is one of the must-watch games of the year. Lazio enjoyed a far better campaign than their fierce rivals last season, but Roma will want to get some local bragging rights after a summer of huge change at the Giallorossi. If fans are back by then, expect fireworks in the stands, too.
Inter Milan vs. Juve: May 16:
The two title favourites meet in the penultimate match of the season in a match which could decide the Scudetto. Just one point separated the two teams last season and the match pits Pirlo up against Conte, who managed him to three Serie A titles at Juve. Pirlo played for Inter for three seasons before joining Milan in 2001.