THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

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With Leonardo Bonucci and Dani Alves gone, and Alex Sandro potentially on his way, cracks are showing in the champions from which Napoli could benefit

16 August ~ Serie A begins on Saturday with champions Juventus hosting Cagliari before third-place Napoli visit promoted Verona. Among the eight games on Sunday, the pick is last seasons runners-up Roma’s visit to fourth-place Atalanta. With the transfer market still in full swing, predictions are difficult, but in the first five places I put, in alphabetical order, Inter, Juventus, Napoli, Roma and Torino.

I think that Juventus will struggle to retain the Scudetto. They have lost Leonardo Bonucci and Dani Alves and may lose Alex Sandro, and by all accounts theirs is not a happy dressing room. It is being denied, of course, but something happened during the interval in the Champions League final in Cardiff, and since then Massimiliano Allegri does not seem to have the full confidence of his players. The team were remarkably ordinary in losing 3-2 to Lazio in the Italian Super Cup.

So perhaps it will be Napoli’s year. The team are more or less untouched, and if they can avoid banana skins such as Palermo and Pescara last season, they could do it. Inter will be more solid under Luciano Spalletti, and Torino will be up there if they can add defensive solidity to their enormous attacking potential (and if they can keep Andrea Belotti). Roma are a mystery. A new coach, Eusebio di Francesco, the departures of Mohamed Salah and Antonio Rüdiger, the retirement of Francesco Totti and a 4-1 defeat to Celta Vigo all suggest they may have problems.

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My next five are Fiorentina, Lazio, Milan, Sampdoria and Sassuolo. Milan have bought experience in Lucas Biglia from Lazio and Bonucci from Juventus, and youthful exuberance in Franck Kessié and Andrea Conti from Atalanta, but I do not think they are strong enough yet to combine the Europa League grind with a challenge for a top-four place. Fiorentina have lost some key players, especially Borja Valero, but they have pedigree and no European commitments. Lazio showed against Juventus that they should make the top eight despite Europe. As for Sampdoria and Sassuolo, they are two solid teams with only the championship to concentrate on.

From 11th to 15th I predict Atalanta, Bologna, Cagliari, Genoa and Udinese. Atalanta will not repeat last season’s exploits, and will lose points because of their Europa League commitments. Bologna and Genoa are two of the pioneer clubs of Italian football, now seemingly condemned to perpetual mediocrity. Udinese’s golden age is over, at least for the moment, but they have enough quality to stay out of relegation trouble. The same is probably true of Cagliari, though they will need to shore up last season’s leaky defence.

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And so we come to the bottom five. Benevento, Chievo, Crotone, Spal, Verona. A year ago, Benevento were contemplating their first ever season in Serie B. Now, thanks to the vagaries of the play-offs, (they finished nine points behind Frosinone) they find themselves catapulted into Serie A. Mindful of Pescara’s pathetic efforts last season, they have made some shrewd purchases, but it is impossible not to see them as favourites to go down. History is not on their side. The same might be said of Spal. They have been in Serie A before, but not since 1968, and they have also bought well, but the problem for both them and Benevento will be the quality of their reserves if they are hit by injuries.

Chievo are placed in this group because they look likely once again to be the oldest team in Serie A, and one day age will catch up with them. Their city neighbours Verona have plenty of Serie A experience, but their recruitment so far has not been convincing. The third relegation spot might be between them and Crotone, who will be looking to build on last season’s miraculous survival. They certainly look stronger than they did 12 months ago.

I am sure that some of these predictions will prove way out but if, a year ago, anyone had said that Atalanta would finish fourth, nobody would have taken them seriously. Maybe some other team will take up their mantle and add interest to the coming season – although the use of VAR for the first time in all matches may become the biggest talking point. Richard Mason

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