Last season Inter were out of the flailing grasp of any of their opponents. Cantering to their fifth title in a row, along with victory in the Copa Italia, seemed to go relatively unnoticed after they claimed their first European crown since 1965. For incoming boss Rafa Benitez, expectations will be as high as he has ever experienced.
Although Inter possessed a decent squad last season, and had in my opinion, the best manager in the world orchestrating things, few would have considered them to be genuine contenders for the Champions League: Real had spent so much money, Chelsea and Man Utd had the experience and Barcelona had the most beautiful team of recent memory. I still maintain that with any other manager, those Inter players, as good as some are, would not have won the Champions League. Mourinho gave them that belief.
What Benitez does have in his favour, is that his team are comfortably the best in Serie A. Julio Cesar, Maicon and Lucio are amongst the best in the world in their respective positions, and in Samuel Eto’o, Diego Milito and Wesley Sneijder they boast explosive and clinical firepower (and don’t get me even started on Javier Zanetti – the man is a scaled-down version of God). Roma, who finished two points behind Inter last season, cannot make similar claims about their squad.
Roma remain the only one of what we could call contenders who hasn’t changed their manager. Claudio Ranieri, as proud a Roman as they come, is still in charge and must now accommodate the signing of Adriano, which was forced upon him by his board. AC Milan, Juventus and Sampdoria have all had managerial changes, and the former two have been busy in adding to their squads. Samp on the other hand, must rely on the brilliant, but potentially implosive, strike partnership of Giampaolo Pazzini and Antonio Cassano. Having missed out on qualification for the Champions League after a battle with Werder Bremen, they are already a wounded beast and will be worth keeping an eye on, although their biggest opponent could be themselves.
‘The Old Lady’ of Juve have kept things relatively domestic with the additions of Simone Pepe, Leonardo Bonucci, and Marco Motta, not to mention Alberto Aquilani’s latest attempt to convince people he is indeed a professional footballer.
For AC Milan, it could go one of two ways. The Rossoneri have appointed former Cagliari boss Massimiliano Allegri as their manager, and as the transfer window began to shut, made some very bold statements. Exactly how Pato, Robinho, Ronaldinho and Ibrahimovic will fit into a starting eleven (assuming that they will, an assumption that the concerned individuals will no doubt be making) will be an interesting development; big name players for a small name boss is not always a renowned recipe for success.
It will come as no shock to any followers of the Italian game, or anyone else for that matter, that pre-season has been riddled with controversy, bureaucracy and crowd trouble. Laws regarding the quota on foreign imports have been debated back and forth, with clubs only allowed to buy one non-EU player each year. There has been rioting and fighting across the breadth of ‘the boot’ and the league’s authorities have split over differences of one too many opinions. And yet, last season saw the league’s highest average attendances for nearly twenty years. Controversy is what Italians do.
And so, amongst the Bickering Italians, is a Spaniard who would freely admit himself that the league is the absolute minimum that he must achieve. No team has won the Champions League back to back, and if Inter fail to retain their European title it wouldn’t be an earth-shattering shock. But this is a man who took Liverpool to two Champions League finals in his time at Anfield; it’s what Benitez does best. In the meantime, the status quo remains and the league should take care of itself.
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