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Serie A Season Preview: Even Without Pogba, Can Anyone Stop Juventus?

TURIN, ITALY - MAY 14: Juventus FC players celebrate with the trophy after the Serie A match between Juventus FC and UC Sampdoria at Juventus Arena on May 14, 2016 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)

The Serie A season kicks off in anger this weekend, with Juventus defending their Scudetto for a fifth consecutive year.

Much has changed in Turin over the summer, out went Pogba for around €105m and in came Gonzalo Higuaín for €90m as the Old Lady looks to increase her stranglehold on the league.

By prising Higuaín from Napoli – and, indeed, Miralem Pjanic from Roma – Juve have directly weakened their closest rivals, and while that might not have been their main aim when signing those players, it as certainly a handy by-product in their grand Machiavellian scheme.

Other new arrivals this summer are the loan singing of Bayern defender Medhi Benatia, highly-rated Croatian winger Marko Pjaca and Barcelona veteran Dani Alves.

Overall, Juve are looking very strong this year. Stronger than last season, in fact, despite the obvious loss of Pogba. Whether they needed to strengthen so much considering how much better they are than the chasing pack is an interesting theory, and the signing of Higuaín in particular could fall victim to the law of diminishing returns – but it does point to their focus shifting to the Champions League.

Theirs is now a starting eleven capable of upsetting the Holy Trinity of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich and that appears to be very much their end game this season.

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 07: Gonzalo Higuain of Juventus in action during the Pre-Season Friendly match between West Ham United and Juventus at the London Stadium on August 7, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Juve’s other priorities may slightly open the door for their leading rivals, Napoli and Roma. Juve’s uncharacteristically bad start last season allowed the former (and Inter) to lead the way in the early stages of the title race, and  although Maurizio Sarri’s side fell short in the end, they will have been encouraged by their season as a whole.

Unfortunately for the Partenopei, they now have a huge Gonzalo Higuaín-seized hole in their attack. The Argentine striker scored 36 goals last season, a feat that will be almost impossible for new €35m signing Arkadiusz Milik to replicate. One-time Liverpool target Piotr Zielinski has also come in at the San Paolo, so too have Emanuele Giaccherini and Lorenzo Tonelli.

A fist Serie A title since 1990 will almost certainly be beyond Sarri and his team, and even retaining an automatic Champions League place could be a struggle due to the resurgent challenge of…

NAPLES, ITALY - AUGUST 01: Napoli's player Omar El Kaddouri vies with OGC Nice player Albert Rafetraniaina during the pre-season friendly match between SSC Napoli and OGC Nice at Stadio San Paolo on August 1, 2016 in Naples, Italy. (Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images)

Roma. The Giallorossi have been a team transformed since Luciano Spalletti returned to replace Rudi García in January, and with a full summer of pre-season down they seem the most likely side to challenge Juve for the title.

Since Spalletti returned to the Stadio Olimpico, they have lost just one league match – a 1-0 away defeat at Juve – and won 14 of their final 19 Serie A matches. But for the fact that Napoli had built a lead up in the first half of the season, they almost certainly would have finished runners-up last year.

In terms of strengthening, Brazilian international goalkeeper Alisson has joined for €8m. A number of players, including the likes of Mohamed Salah and Stephan El-Shaarawy, have seen their loan moves made permanent, while players such as Thomas Vermaelen, Bruno Peres and Federcio Fazio have come in on temporary deals of their own.

Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, meanwhile, has extended his spell at the club by another year at least.

The Wolves are feeling confident about this season, and they have every right to be.

CAMBRIDGE, MA - JULY 27: Juan Manuel Iturbe #7 of AS Roma celebrates a goal with Edin Dzeko #9 during a friendly match against the Boston Bolts at Ohiri Field on July 27, 2016 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

It’s all change at the San Siro, as both Milan clubs head into the season with new managers. The predicted AC and Inter revival did not quite happen last season (though the latter did at least offer some sort of title challenge up until the winter).

Roberto Mancini’s squabble with new Inter owners Suning Holdings was awkwardly played out in public – both swore blind that there was no issue but the working relationship became increasingly untenable.

Mancini eventually left in a row about funding for new signings – namely, that there wasn’t any – and he had to make do with free transfers Éver Banega and Caner Erkin, and inexpensive signings such as Cristian Ansaldi.

Frank de Boer was installed as manager soon after Mancini’s departure, which seemed to bring about a change in attitude in the Inter owners. Lazio winger Antonio Candreva was signed for €22m almost instantly, and Portugal international Joao Mario is expected to arrive at the San Siro for somewhere north of €40m before the end of August.

Keeping hold of captain Mauro Icardi was a major win for the club, and even if they lose promising midfielder Marcelo Brozovic, the Nerazzurri are in a good position to improve on their fourth place finish last season.

CHARLOTTE, NC - JULY 30: F. Melo #5 of FC Internazionale reacts during a 4-1 loss to FC Bayern Munich in an International Champions Cup match at Bank of America Stadium on July 30, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

So while Inter at least appear to be going in the right direction, can the same be said of city rivals AC? They like, Inter, will soon have new Asian owners, but will that bring about the transition required to finally get them back to the pinnacle of the Italian game after several years of mediocrity?

By and large, there have been no major moves in either direction for the Rossoneri – José Sosa, Leonel Vangioni, Gianluca Lapadula and centre-back Gustavo Gómez (who could yet turn out to be a bargain at €8.5m) have all come through the door in this temporary wave of frugality, with veterans Philippe Mexès, Alex and Chrisitan Abiatti all quietly shown the door, and Jérémy Ménez joining Bordeaux.

New manager Vincenzo Montella is not expected to pull up any trees this season – which is just as well, because with that squad a Europa League place is about as good as they can hope for.

They should, however, manage a top six finish, especially with last season’s surprise package Sassuolo distracted by European football.

REGGIO NELL'EMILIA, ITALY - AUGUST 10:  Andrea Poli of AC Milan gestures during the TIM Preseason Tournament at Mapei Stadium - Citta' del Tricolore on August 10, 2016 in Reggio nell'Emilia, Italy  (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)

Which leaves, of the traditional “big” sides, Fiorentina and Lazio.

The former’s season was thrown into disarray before it had even started. The volatile Marcelo Bielsaa arrived to fanfare in early July, only to leave a smoking crater by walking out on the club just two days later. With their pre-season plans in ruins, Lazio once again turned to last season’s emergency option Simone Inzaghi to lead the team for the time being at least.

However, the fans are restless. Keita Diao went on strike, star player Antonio Candreva was sold to Inter, the club’s new signings have done little to lift the mood – the supporters aren’t happy and owner Claudio Lotito is firmly in their firing line.

ROME, ITALY - MAY 15 : Senad Lulic (19) of SS Lazio celebrates with his team mates after scoring the opening  goal during Serie A soccer match between Lazio and Fiorentina at Stadio Olimpico on May 15, 2016 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Claudio Pasquazi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Fiorentina, meanwhile, like Inter qualified for the Europa League group stage. After three consecutive top four finishes, La Viola finished in fifth place last season.

So has Paulo Sousa strengthened to launch another assault on the top four, maybe even top three with a good run? Well, yes and no.

They have made some nominal improvements to the squad, Carlos Sánchez from Aston Villa, the re-signing of Cristian Tello etc. One would also expect promising forward Federico Bernardeschi to really kick on and make a name for himself this year.

There have been no major departures that would necessarily hurt the side either, so a season of treading water in Florence may be on the cards, particularly as Inter look like going all out in the final weeks of the window.

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Top 6 Prediction: 1. Juventus, 2. Roma, 3. Inter, 4. Napoli, 5. Fiorentina, 6. Milan

So then, to the relegation battle.

On the face of it, new boys Crotone look doomed already in what will be their first season in the top division.

Their top scorer last season, Ante Budimir, has left the club after his loan spell expired, their manager Ivan Juric has gone to Genoa, and their attempts to sign Mario Balotelli haven’t exactly gone well – all in all it could be a very long season for Davide Nicola and his side.

Cagliari and Pescara also made their way back into the top tier after much briefer absences, and while they will naturally be among the favourites for relegation, don’t rule out either Udinese or Palermo.

UDINE, ITALY - MAY 15:  Antonio Di Natale of Udinese Calcio says goodbye to the fans after his last game,  the Serie A match between Udinese Calcio and Carpi FC at Stadio Friuli on May 15, 2016 in Udine, Italy.  (Photo by Dino Panato/Getty Images)

The former have lost their biggest player in Antonio Di Natale, the latter arguably their best in Franco Vazquez to Sevilla – these clubs have rarely been rocks of stability so it would not be a surprise to see at least one of them sucked into Serie B in May. They barely survived relegation last season – for one, their luck could be about to run out.

Bottom 3 Predictions: 18. Palermo, 19. Pescara, 20. Crotone

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Author: The PA Team

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