Football: Milan merely mortal again?: Jasper Rees on shifts in power in Italy, where the season begins today

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The Independent Online
THIS TIME last year, on the eve of the league season in Italy, all eyes were on Gianluigi Lentini, whose pounds 13m transfer from Torino served notice of Milan's almost scary plans for European domination. What a difference a year makes. As you could tell by the look on the face of Silvio Berlusconi after the European Cup final in May, by their own supremacist standards Milan's season was a failure. Nothing mocked the absurd inflation gripping football in the Mediterranean so much as Lentini's consistently poor showing, rounded off by the car crash that has indefinitely sidelined the world's costliest player.

Milan, like a lot of other rulers in Italy, may well be on the skids. For the first time in six years they will start the season without a single Dutchman in their line-up. Ruud Gullit has opted, like David Platt, for the guarantee of first- team football at Sampdoria, while Marco Van Basten's injured ankle could keep him out until Christmas. Granted, Gullit is a waning force and there is always Jean- Pierre Papin, but the club's inability to persuade Frank Rijkaard to stay will leave a bigger hole.

Still, a crisis at Milan has to be put into perspective. Just because they refused Napoli's asking price of pounds 13m for the Uruguayan striker Daniel Fonseca, it does not mean that their still-mighty squad is short of foreign reinforcements: in come the Romanian Florin Radicioiu from Brescia and Brian Laudrup, on loan from Fiorentina, whose sad relegation goes to show that throwing money at a problem means nothing if the megalomaniac proprietors allow themselves to hire and fire coaches at will.

Their influence will still be huge, but hired guns from abroad will not write the headlines quite as much as they did last season, when the pressure at the top clubs to win one of the three foreigners' berths proved too much for some. Matthias Sammer, Karl-Heinz Riedle and Des Walker could not stand the heat.

The Netherlands should still have a say in Serie A, however. Internazionale, recently reliant on their own trio of Germans, have imported the gifted Dennis Bergkamp and his footballing minder Wim Jonk from Ajax. If Ruben Sosa carries on where he left off, the title could change hands while remaining at the same address.

Italian football has not escaped the turmoil afflicting the country. The scandals and economic recession have reduced the amount of funds available for big spending, so that the clubs which buy little but wisely, or even not at all, should be at less of a disadvantage this year. Juventus, whose owners at Fiat are feeling the pinch, go into the new season with more or less the same squad, minus Platt. A lot hinges on Gianluca Vialli, who has yet to give the Uefa Cup- holders their money's worth.

The other two clubs to watch are Parma, the Cup-Winners' Cup-holders, and Lazio. Parma will be even more attractive this season, having made perhaps the most astute signing of the summer - that of the diminutive midfielder Gianfranco Zola from Napoli. Lazio, meanwhile, have shored up the their defence by buying Luca Marchegiani, Italy's current goalkeeper, from Torino. This should allow You Know Who more freedom to weave his spells, though of course you never know with Him.

Other clubs have made star signings - Atalanta lured Franck Sauzee from Marseille, Roma have bought the prodigious goalscorer Adel Balbo from Udinese - but whether they can mount a serious challenge is open to doubt. Having said that, the gap between second from top and third from bottom was so minimal throughout last season - a club could lose two on the trot and drop 10 places - that anything could happen. But it probably will not: in Italy, everything changes, but it stays the same.

Channel 4 resumes coverage of the Italian League this afternoon with the match between Napoli and Sampdoria. Each Sunday this season one match will be delayed until the evening, for broadcasting on a pay-television network in Italy. Today's evening match is Paul Gascoigne's Lazio v Foggia.

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