ROME, Italy, September 9 – Reigning champions AC Milan head into the new Serie A season as unsurprising favourites following a summer of relative inactivity that has done little to spice up the coming campaign.
With the player strike put off for another, the scudetto race can finally begin, albeit two weeks late.
Milan beat off the challenges of Inter Milan and Napoli last season and it is hard to see anything having changed significantly in the summer to upset the apple-cart.
They won the title on a foundation of the meanest defence and moments of brilliance from their star-studded forward line to turn tight games in their favour.
There has been a slight regeneration in defence ahead of this season with the arrivals of Philippe Mexes and Taye Taiwo meaning the Rossoneri’s mean backline should only get meaner.
They have also added Italy internationals Alberto Aquilani and Antonio Nocerino to bolster their aging midfield, meaning the likes of Gennnaro Gattuso, Massimo Ambrosini and Clarence Seedorf could well be heading into their swansong seasons at the club.
Milan forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic believes their new signings has ensured they remain favourites.
“We’re still favourites, we’ve strengthened in this transfer window,” he said.
“We’re better than we were last season, I’m happy with all the signings we’ve made.”
The objective then is for the rest to catch them and yet no-one seems to have taken any significant strides in doing so.
Their main challenge will undoubtedly come from Inter who, without the distraction of the Club World Cup, should be more focused this season and as long as they don’t give themselves a mountain to climb with a poor start, as they did 12 months ago, then they should at least push Milan closer this time around.
But it is hard to see how they will have improved, not least due to the departure of Samuel Eto’o, their best player last season, to Russians Anzhi Makhachkala.
They weren’t helped by a long-term injury to centre-back Walter Samuel but Andrea Ranocchia proved an able understudy who has even done enough to earn a regular starting berth in the Italy national team.
New coach Gian Piero Gasperini is set to employ a three-man backline, which could take time to gel and is certainly a risk.
Eto’o’s loss is probably the most signifcant change and despite the additions of Diego Forlan and Mauro Zarate, Eto’o’s advantage was his seering pace and the fact he could operate out wide as well as through the middle.
Club captain Javier Zanetti believes the key is to avoid the injuries that blighted the first half of their last campaign.
“We’ve won a lot these last years and we remain a group that can aim to win everything,” he said.
“None of us think we’re not favourites. We know how much we want it and all we need is to stay injury free.”
Napoli have strengthened but only modestly with Gokhan Inler coming into midfield from Udinese and Goran Pandev signing on loan from Inter to add attacking options.
Their problem last year was a lack of squad depth and an inability to replace any of their talented attacking triumvirate: Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik, with a player of equal impact.
Pandev will go some way to solving that issue but their squad still looks thin.
Meanwhile the big unknown will be a Juventus who have spent heavily again.
Mirko Vucinic and Arturo Vidal look like good signings, as does Andrea Pirlo, but these are hardly the star names the Turin giants promised.
These players also don’t appear to be any better than the ones already at the club and strength in depth was never their problem given they brought in 13 players last season.
What remains to be seen is if new coach Antonio Conte can mould them into a team as they undoubtedly have the individuals to be finishing much higher than the seventh-placed efforts of the last two seasons.
As for the rest it is hard to envisage any surprises.
Looking beyond Milan as champions would seem an exercise in futility.
AC Milan v Lazio 1845
Cesena v Napoli 1845
Sunday (1300 GMT unless stated)
Juventus v Parma 1230
Catania v Siena
Chievo v Novara
Fiorentina v Bologna
Genoa v Atalanta
Lecce v Udinese
AS Roma v Cagliari
Palermo v Inter Milan 1845