Serie A season preview 2013-14

The annual exodus of players from Italy has been offset by a series of high-profile arrivals, promising an exciting campaign

It has become a dispiritingly familiar routine. The summer transfer window opens and a handful of Serie A's best players depart. Last year the league bade farewell to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva and Ezequiel Lavezzi; in 2011 it lost Alexis Sánchez, Samuel Eto'o and Javier Pastore.

This summer's flight began in July, when Edinson Cavani, Stevan Jovetic and Marquinhos secured lucrative transfers abroad, and it may not be over. Roma's Erik Lamela is expected to join Tottenham Hotspur imminently, with the Italian journalist Gianluca Di Marzio reporting on Thursday that only "agents' fees, payments and other details" remained to be agreed.

There was a time when such sales would have provoked serious soul-searching on the peninsula. Not so much these days. The Italian football community is well aware of its league's diminished standing within Europe. A Champions League berth has been lost to Germany, and there is a strong chance that Italy will fall behind Portugal in Uefa's coefficient rankings next season – even if only temporarily.

Supporters, furthermore, have always been willing to accept the sale of star players as long as they are adequately replaced. This summer's departures were offset by a number of high-profile arrivals.

"Look! The top players are coming back," exclaimed Gazzetta dello Sport's front-page headline on 25 July. Those words were accompanied by a photo of Gonzalo Higuaín making his way through Rome's Fiumicino airport, with a Napoli scarf around his neck. The Partenopei had agreed to pay €37m (£31m) plus bonuses to sign him from Real Madrid.

That was just the tip of the iceberg. Napoli earned €64m from Cavani's sale to Paris Saint-Germain, but the club's owner, Aurelio De Laurentiis, declared afterwards that his team had a total of €124m to spend. Along with Higuaín, they have added Raúl Albiol and José Maria Calléjon from Madrid, as well as Pepe Reina from Liverpool and Dries Mertens from PSV, yet still have significant funds left over.

Fiorentina, meanwhile, acted pre-emptively, signing Mario Gómez from Bayern Munich for €16m before selling Jovetic to Manchester City for almost twice as much. Likewise, Roma had already landed their top summer target, the PSV midfielder Kevin Strootman, by the time they accepted PSG's remarkable €31m bid for Marquinhos.

Throw in the foreign acquisitions made by Juventus – signing Carlos Tevez from Manchester City and Fernando Llorente on a Bosman – and you can see how Gazzetta came to the conclusion that "the scales weigh in favour of the arrivals". Lamela's imminent departure may alter that assessment, but then so could any signings that Roma make with the proceeds.

Certainly it would appear that many supporters are enthused. Serie A has experienced steadily declining attendances for many years, but the early indications are that this season could buck that trend. Gazzetta reported on 15 August that 28,000 more season tickets had been sold across the league's 20 teams than at the corresponding point in 2012.

Fiorentina enjoyed the most significant rise, increasing their sales from 12,000 to 22,000 in the space of a year. It is not hard to understand why. Vincenzo Montella's team played some of the most optimistic and entertaining football anywhere in Europe last season, barely missing out on a Champions League spot on the final day of the campaign.

The signing of Gómez has captured fans' imaginations, with 25,000 of them showing up to his unveiling at the Stadio Artemio Franchi, but Fiorentina have strengthened in different areas besides attack.

Josip Ilicic, Joaquín and Juan Cuadrado give Montella a range of options behind the attack, while Massimo Ambrosini offers discipline and leadership in midfield. If Giuseppe Rossi, finally recovered from successive knee ligament injuries, can recapture anything of his past form, this could be quite some team.

On paper Fiorentina look capable of breaking into the top three, especially if Napoli should falter. Last season's runners-up will, after all, not only be adjusting to life without Cavani – the man who scored 40% of their league goals last term – but also to a whole new tactical system under Rafael Benítez.

The Spaniard was quick to abandon the three-man defence used by his predecessor Walter Mazzarri, a decision that will be heavily scrutinised. Christian Maggio, whose marauding runs from right wing-back have been a key component of Napoli's best performances in recent years, has often struggled when deployed in a back four with the Italian national team.

In the wake of Juventus' Champions League quarter-final defeat to Bayern Munich last season, a good many pundits argued that the Italian champions would need to adjust to a four-man defence if they wished to go any further. Antonio Conte has thus far resisted those calls. Instead, the Juve manager brought in another central defender, Torino's Angelo Ogbonna, to alternate with his existing back three.

The Bianconeri played poorly in pre-season, winning only two of their six friendlies. One of those victories came via a penalty shootout, and the other was against Aygreville – a team from the sixth tier of Italian football. "When the president tells me to rearrange our season to win some friendlies, I'll do it," Conte shot back at a reporter questioning his methods. Ten days later, Juventus thrashed Lazio 4-0 in the Italian Supercup – their first competitive fixture of the campaign.

Tevez played a leading role, scoring his team's fourth and pulling Lazio apart with his movement. Llorente did not feature, and concern has been expressed over his apparent struggles in adapting to Conte's systems. Even without him, though, this team will be hard to stop – especially if Paul Pogba continues to perform at the level he showed in that game.

If any team is to challenge Juventus, it will most likely be Milan, who collected more points than anyone else in the second half of last season. The Rossoneri have lost Ambrosini since then but will have Nigel de Jong available once more following the achilles injury that ruined last season for him.

Up front, they can rely on "the most interesting man in the world". That is how Mario Balotelli was billed by Sports Illustrated this week, when he became the first European-based football player to appear on its cover. The Rossoneri will care less about their player's media profile and more about his goals; he scored 12 in 13 games for them last season.

Anxiety has been building over a possible renewal of the racist abuse directed at Balotelli last term. The player told Sports Illustrated that he will not walk off the pitch if it does occur, but only because he knows that the rules forbid him from doing so.

The league will attempt to discourage such chants by handing down more severe punishments for repeat offenders. Lazio have already been ordered to close the Stadio Olimpico's Curva Nord – home to the team's Ultras – for their opening league game against Udinese this Sunday after supporters were heard abusing Pogba during the Supercup.

On the pitch, Lazio's season has already been damaged by a six-month ban for their captain, Stefano Mauri, who was found guilty on two counts of failing to report a third party's attempts to fix a match. The club's most realistic target this season may be to retain a place in the Europa League, but even that will not be straightforward; Italy's falling coefficient has meant stiffer competition for places in all continental competitions.

Roma, despite the sales of Lamela and Pablo Osvaldo, are targeting a spot in Europe under their new manager, Rudi Garcia, and their potential midfield combination of Strootman, Daniele De Rossi and Michael Bradley could be very imposing indeed. Internazionale, meanwhile, are rebuilding under Mazzarri, but believe that the additions of Mauro Icardi and Ishak Belfodil up front, as well as Hugo Campagnaro at the back, can help to make them competitive sooner rather than later.

All of those three teams, however, could be usurped by Udinese – just as they were last season. Luis Muriel missed a significant part of the 2012-13 campaign due to injury, but struck up an electric partnership with Antonio Di Natale once he had returned.

There will be plenty of interest at the other end of the table, too. Sassuolo, playing in the top flight for the first time in their history, have already pulled off something of a coup by landing the highly-rated young striker Simone Zaza – who scored 18 goals for Ascoli in Serie B last season – on a co-ownership deal from Juventus. Livorno did likewise by loaning the Italy Under-21 goalkeeper Francesco Bardi from Inter.

Hellas's promotion, meanwhile, means that the Verona derby is back on the calendar for the first time since 2002. Given that both teams are among the favourites for relegation, it would be wise to enjoy these games while they last.

Elsewhere, the soap opera that surrounds Italian football will rumble on just as it always has. Managers will be fired, owners will bicker and Cagliari will continue to play their home games more than 500 miles away from their hometown. Because players come and players leave, but the show must always go on.

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