FORGET THE EURO PAIN, THIS IS WHY YOU SHOULD BE WATCHING SERIE A THIS SEASON?
This summer saw Jorginho (and Emerson) conquer Europe, at club then international level, with their wins in the Champions League and Euro 2020. The Italians are hot property at the moment and while the bitterness of losing the Euros at Wembley is still there, here are 5 reasons you should give the Italian league a chance this year.
1. The Squadra Azzura are European champions
Cruising through the group stages, with easy wins against Turkey, Switzerland and Wales, Italy slowly left their outsiders status behind to become one of the favourites. The struggle at Wembley against Austria caught a few off guard, but extra time gave the advantage to Mancini’s men. Then came Belgium, best team in the world according to FIFA rankings, their biggest challenge so far. Yet, the defensive solidity of Bonucci and Chiellini and the brilliance of Insigne and Chiesa saw Italy beat the Belgian Devils. Another two steps to European glory, a stage that nobody expected them to reach. Similarly to Spain, the lack of internationally recognised quality (on paper) of Italy put them as challengers for a good run in the competition, but never as serious contenders to win the tournament. Yet, by early July, both Spain and Italy met in Wembley for a ticket in the final. Donnaruma’s hands and Chiesa’s right foot saw off the Spaniards and led their team to a final challenge of the gladiators in the Wembley arena. England fans were up for a scrap, the Italian players brought the big guns. And yes, it ended in tears for Saka and the Three Lions, and the years of hurt keep on going, but it was for all the joy of the Italians.
Now why am I telling you this? Because usually, teams that win big international competitions, reflect a top-quality squad of players. And unlike France 2018 or Portugal 2016, a very big proportion of players in the Italian squad, play in their national league, Serie A. Out of the 17 players who were involved in the final in Wembley, only Verratti (PSG), Emerson and Jorginho (Chelsea) did not play, at the time, in Italy. Yes, Gigi in goal has moved to France since, but most of the team will be playing at the very top of the Serie A this season. Juventus, both Milans, both Roman clubs, Atalanta…the big dogs have had players involved throughout the tournament and will be glad to see them shine at club level as well. The likes of Spinazzola, Di Lorenzo, Pessina, and even to a lesser extent Chiesa, broke out on the international stage this summer and this is your chance to watch them play every weekend throughout the season, not just during the summer. A strong colony will be wearing the black and white shirt of Juventus, including newly transferred Locatelli, a team seeking to regain their league title after failing for the first time in a decade to clinch the Scudetto. The Italian squad mixed youth and experience, and the centre back pairing will be changing soon. However, the core of the squad will be competing for a spot at World Cup 2022; Serie A gives you a chance to watch future contenders before the Qatari tournament.
2. Breakout stars
Last season, Serie A delivered a few shocks, including a change of hand when it comes to the title. Inter stopped Juventus from winning ten titles in a row, the other club of Milan are back in the top European competition and the continental slots were played up until the last day. We will discuss how this will shape the upcoming season, but first we have to talk about some of the breakout stars from the previous season. Whether they played incredible football at club level and will be looking to confirm with their club this year, or they were essential pieces to their national teams during the Euros and will be featured in Serie A in 2021-2022, these players are worth a watch.
Dusan Vlahovic (Fiorentina): The Serbian striker has shown incredible promise throughout last season. With la Viola, the tall centre forward was able to showcase his physicality, slick technique and his killer instinct in the box. Fiorentina are not the team they were at the turn of the century, very far from that. They can most definitely thank Vlahovic for his 23 goal contributions which enabled them to stay comfortable in the middle of the table. He is however, greatly predicted to leave Florence in the coming days, with Manchester City notably showing interest as the pursuit of Kane seems to drag on for too long. His height and strength would make an ideal target man in an attack that seems to sometimes lack a focal point and finishing quality. After joining Fiorentina for 2 million euros in 2018, his market value has exploded and could well be worth over 50-60 million this summer if he were to leave. For Serie A fanatics and his fans, they will be hoping to see him grace Italian pitches at least another season.
Mikkel Damsgaard (Sampdoria): Difficult to present this man without mentioning his semi-final freekick goal against England. A very special kick in the top corner which gave Denmark the lead. His special technique which saw him also score against Russia earlier in the tournament, enabling him to break out on the big stage. In line with the intelligent recruitment from the scouting team in Genoa, Sampdoria picked up the young Dane and hoped to have the same success that they had with Bruno Fernandes. While his stats are nothing to be extremely excited about, his playing time is very consistent and he is bound to gain even more this season, particularly after such a good tournament. It will be interesting to see now if he can carry out his international form at club level and maybe push for his club towards the top half of the table. Confirming his summer form this year could vouch for his talent and possibly a transfer to a bigger club next summer.
Robin Gosens (Atalanta): Euro 2020 was a highlight tournament for left backs, whether they played a more classic role with four at the back or as a wing back with a back 5. Gosens and Maehle fit that description. The German international was constantly bombing down the wing, putting a strong impact and pressure on his opponents, using what Gasperini taught him in Bergamo. His defensive performances countered notably most of France’s attacks in the first game, before having a tremendous game against Portugal, a game where his attacking output was far more noticeable. Remarkable on the pitch, nice guy off it, the German has played a key role in the last few months for Atalanta and showed the extent of his talent on the big stage. He perfectly filled a position that has been lacking quality for years in the German squad. Him, like many other Atalanta players, are worth a watch this season.
Joakim Maehle (Atalanta): Another Dane, another left wing back. While playing a key role at club level on the right flank, the Danish manager opted for Larsen in that position, giving Maehle a challenge on the left with his preferred right foot. And it is fair to say, it was a big success. Nominated in most people’s team of the Euros, the Bergamo player showed his passing range, his energy and inherently his overall quality in both halves of the pitch. Combining with Damsgaard, whether that meant doing overlaps or runs inside, it was certainly a very good relationship they had on the pitch. His partner in Bergamo on the other flank is Gosens, which gives you a good sense of the quality in the team that finished third last season and could certainly push for more this season.
Gonzalo Villar (AS Roma): While not featuring at the main Euros, Villar’s appearances at Under 21 level for Spain, as well as getting to an Olympic final alongside Pedri, were particularly noticeable. His great summer comes off the back of a very promising season under the orders of Fonseca. While not being a direct starter at the beginning of the season, the Portuguese manager gradually brought him into the fold and played a key role in the European run for his club, reaching the quarter finals of the Europa League. He eventually played 33 games, which is impressive for player who still feels like he has not quite reached his potential at 23 years old. His passing and vision were key in the centre of the park for Roma, but also his work rate. A player who falls in the category of those who work their socks off every game for sure. It is unclear whether the new Portuguese manager, José Mourinho, will trust him as much as the previous, but there is certainly a lot of potential in the young Villar’s feet.
3. Race for the title
Unless a last-minute transfer happens, these players will all be featured in this season’s Serie A which promises to be an exciting one. Many feel that the mass sale of Inter’s best players will stop them from competing for the crown they currently have. Losing Lukaku, Hakimi, Conte and possibly Eriksen after his summer incident, that would destroy most teams. However, the reigning champions have not lost any of their defensive solidity (Hakimi played more as a winger), with De Vrij, Skriniar and Bastoni at the back, Handanovic in goal and Brozovic still protecting them, the best defence in the league should still be solid this season. Lukaku has been replaced by Dzeko, Calhanoglu arrives for Eriksen and Dumfries replaces Hakimi. While there is a certain drop in quality there, it is fair to say that the team is not completely dismantled. Inzaghi takes the seat in the dugout and he plays a similar 3 at the back system that was brought by Conte. The big question remains whether Lautaro Martinez will stay in Italy or join a Premier League side (Spurs, City or Arsenal), a blow which they would struggle to recover from. The financial difficulties of the club have put in jeopardy their chances of retaining the title.
On the other hand, Juventus have brought back the man who helped them win 5 league titles, Max Allegri, and have loaned in Locatelli to dynamize a midfield that felt extremely weak at times under Pirlo. Ronaldo is still around, Chiesa has come out of an incredible tournament and the centre back pairing of Chiellini and Bonucci has showed how good they were at the Euros. Now, will it be easy, probably not. Other teams around Juventus have weakened, and they have slightly improved, but what says that Allegri’s second spell at the club will be as successful as the first? Zidane can vouch for a negative second experience, can the winning mentality of the Italian bring back the title to Turin? It is not the most exciting football in the country, far from it. But it is efficient and that is exactly what the fans want at the moment, after a tragic season last year and a rather underwhelming one under Sarri the year before.
There are certainly other challengers for this title. While AC Milan feel a little far and will be challenging more for Champions League football than the title, there is an argument that Atalanta should in the mix as well. While losing Papu Gomez in January, the club still finished strongly in third with exciting football that could take apart anyone. They ran Real Madrid close in the Champions League, they continuously show they rely on great recruitment, such as Merih Demiral and Juan Musso, but also an incredible academy. Pessina notably featured for Italy, scoring against Austria at the Euros. Nobody knows how long Gasperini can keep on going but for now it’s worth enjoying every minute of it. High intensity, attacking and chaotic football, what is there not to like in this Atalanta team, who also have the underdog story which many external fans love. Get on board the Atalanta train!
4. Race for Europe
A league campaign in Italy used to be resumed to Juventus winning the title, Napoli getting second spot and then a few teams fighting for other spots. However, last season showed that this has completely changed. Napoli are a lot lower, and it feels like 7-8 teams in the top of the table could finish anywhere. Let’s have a look at the contenders.
AC Milan have relied far too much on Ibrahimovic lately and his injury could be detrimental to them. Bringing in Giroud was a very good idea, however losing the best keeper in Serie A and best player of Euro 2020, Gigi Donnaruma, will be a big loss. Far too many times the Italian keeper has saved his team. Calhanoglu has also departed, leaving Brahim Diaz (or a recruit like Bernardo Silva?) the role of creating opportunities for the strikers. That is a big weight on his young shoulders, but he certainly has the potential to do it. The rest of the team is unchanged, with Maignan coming into goal, but the club has new objectives. With their first Champions League qualification in a long while, the owners want the club to stay there and rebecome the club they used to be. They will however be competing on several playing fields and with fierce adversity at home.
Sarri has now arrived in a Lazio team who has strengthened with the return of Felipe Anderson and the arrival of Pedro, a team which already had a lot of quality. Luis Alberto, Immobile, Milinkovic-Savic, these players all have immense Serie A experience and sheer quality. Adding a manager with strong attacking convictions could do a world of good to the club. AS Roma have also changed manager, with Mourinho taking the reins. His young squad will gain from his experience and the fact he takes all the pressure from the media for his team. Nothing says whether he will be successful, when many feel that he is past his time, but he has a great squad to work with, adding Abraham to his front line in addition to the return from injury of Zaniolo, and will be looking at this opportunity to regain credibility. His last spell in Italy led him and Inter to the treble, why not reignite his career in the Stadio Olympico?
In the meantime, Napoli have felt shaken by the passing of Maradona last season and the bizarre management from Gatuso at times, in additions to top players not delivering as they used to. However, new manager Spalletti and strong performances from Insigne, Mertens and Di Lorenzo at the Euros promise for a better season. Osimhen’s second season in Italy should hopefully be a bigger success, after being side-lined for a good chunk of the previous campaign. They still have one of the best squads in the league and while it is aging, there is still that talent running through the spine of the team, which could lead to a far better campaign this season.
The chasing pack feel a little further away, with Fiorentina and Sassuolo losing a lot this summer after a chaotic end of last season. Fiorentina seem to continuously play attractive football, similarly to Sassuolo. However, De Zerbi and Locatelli have departed the latter, with Berrardi preparing his suitcase for another challenge as well, making this season an even bigger challenge. Nonetheless, the cliché of defensive Italian football isn’t so true anymore. A strong base enabled the Italians to win the Euros yes, but their exciting attacks also showed to be determinant in the win and this should be reflected throughout the national league this season.
5. Great stories
Outside of Europe and the title race, there is still a whole half of the table to look at. Italy, just like England, is a very big football nation, they live and breathe for the game and you can certainly find a lot of interesting stories around the stadiums that will be packing up again post-pandemic. The narratives on the pitch should also keep Serie A followers interested.
Venice for example have gained somewhat of an international cult due to their kits becoming iconic and an integral part of football pop culture. After years spent in the second or lower tiers of Italian football, they managed to get promoted and play in their incredible stadium every other week. Fellow graduates from Serie B are Empoli, the division winners last spring, who are back up after getting instantly relegated after their promotion a few years ago. A disappointing final day of the 2018-19 season saw them relegated on goal difference. After impressing last season, they will want to aim to secure a place in the top division, but many feel they could even be pushing for better than that, with a top half of the table finish being plausible. The final club to be promoted is Salernitana, who went into administration ten years ago and have climbed up the table from Serie D back into the top division, even changing ownership again this summer. Like the other two promoted sides, their main objective will be stabilising at the top and fighting to avoid relegation.
While being outside of the topflight, it is also worth keeping an eye on Monza, a club that has been purchased by ex-politician and owner of AC Milan, Silvio Berlusconi. His new project is less financially costing as it was in his Milan years, but his ambition, alongside Adriano Gailliani, is to get the club for the first time into the topflight. Recording most seasons in the second tier without ever being promoted, Monza lost out again in the playoffs at the end of last season. They will however be an interesting up and coming projected which should make it into Serie A next season.
Many other stories can be told throughout this season: Buffon returning to his first side of Parma in the second tier, Hellas Verona continuing the legacy of the city after Chievo was dissolved, and the usual fight in the middle of the table between Bologna, Torino, Sampdoria and Udinese should be fierce as ever. But more importantly, while big stars like Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic or Mourinho will attract media attraction, there are always great teams to follow behind and also the development of the future generation of Italian football, something crucial in Serie A. So, get on board, this will be a rocky season but surely a fascinating one! You can start with free highlights on the Serie A channel, with amazing English commentary, and see where you want to go from there. Forza Italia!