Italy: Serie A determined to prove its brilliance

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The Independent Football

Last year was about making a point to others, this time around Serie A has something to prove to itself. Twelve months ago, the Italian game was busying itself in the hunt for an antidote to five years of underachievement on the continental stage. Three Champions' League semi-finalists, including Milan who went on to lift the trophy for the sixth time, did much to restore an exacting and proud reputation.

Last year was about making a point to others, this time around Serie A has something to prove to itself. Twelve months ago, the Italian game was busying itself in the hunt for an antidote to five years of underachievement on the continental stage. Three Champions' League semi-finalists, including Milan who went on to lift the trophy for the sixth time, did much to restore an exacting and proud reputation.

However, if Italy's top flight is to remain upwardly mobile in Europe, the recent downward turn in domestic matters needs arresting. After years of disdainfully rebuking jibes that its product is a dour backdrop to its Premiership and La Liga cohorts, Serie A is in danger of complying with its stereotype.

Not that there's much wrong with the quality of the football. Internazionale's rip-roaring comeback to turn a 3-0 half-time deficit into a worthy point away at Lazio last December was but one instance of the extravagance which Italian natural instincts unleash sparingly but fabulously. The problem is the growing level of predictability which threatens to paralyse the upper reaches of the table. Juventus, like a cherished old sweater, continue to turn up at the top of the pile. Last year they ambled to a 27th Scudetto with a comfort considerably grander than their seven-point margin over Inter suggested.

The 2002 title, after a monumental tug of war, again with Inter, also ended up in Turin. On the back of another summer of canny tinkering from manager Marcello Lippi, they look a yet more resounding certainty to bat away the challenges of any pretenders to their throne. Nicola Legrottaglie, the nation's outstanding young centre-back, has been summoned to bolster the one area of the side which seems even remotely vulnerable: Ciro Ferrara, the Old Lady's old man, has hinted that a season which will see him turn 37 may well be his last.

Coupled with the craft of Alessandro Del Piero and the goals of David Trezeguet, it is hard to see them being prevented from moving a step closer to the 30 championships promised as the epitaph for Giovanni Agnelli, their charismatic president who died in January. Perhaps the greatest hope the other contenders may hold, forlorn as it seems, is that Lippi, known to be quietly seething at losing last season's Champions' League final, devotes disproportionate attention to landing his second win in that competition.

As usual, the Milanese sides, Milan and Inter, head the best of the rest. Having assured his place among the San Siro élite who have guided the club to European honours, manager Carlo Ancelotti must now covet the Scudetto, absent from the trophy room since 1999. Cafu, the Brazilian double World Cup winner, will roam the right flank after leaving floundering Roma, and ought to provide a reliable source of the lofted through balls Filippo Inzaghi so loves to thunder on to.

The most intriguing close season transfer dealings have been undertaken by Inter. Christian Vieri, one of a phalanx of Serie A giants supposedly waiting for the call to Stamford Bridge, has long brooded over the lack of aerial supply he receives from the Nerazzurri's wide men. Portugal's Sergio Conceicao, the last candidate to try and fail at the task, had a £50,000 per week contract ripped up and has been replaced by Chievo's Luciano. Andy Van der Meyde, a graduate ofRonald Koeman's classical education at Ajax, will complement him on the left. Vieri is said to have been hugely impressed with both of them during pre-season. Whether another wounding year for a traditionally angst ridden club can be avoided will again depend mightily upon his goals.

Down in the Eternal City, the eternal saga of Roma's persecution complex goes on. The early months of last season saw the elderly wife of president Franco Sensi lead a march through the city protesting against perceived refereeing injustices in favour of Juventus. The simple truth is that Fabio Capello's charges never looked like emulating their 2001 league win due to the whimpering lethargy that characterised their year. Francesco Totti, their totemic captain, even threatened to join Milan. The hunt goes on to find a target man to benefit from his invention.

Lazio, against all the odds, have managed to cling on to all the prize pieces of the team which served Roberto Mancini so gutsily last year and will look to the Champions' League for some much needed income.

This season's promoted crop have heart-warming tales to impart. Siena have never before graced Serie A while Sampdoria return after a four year struggle in Serie B during which time they were almost relegated again. Lecce, to be found in the heel of Italy's boot, will make the championship a real all-area competition. Italian fans can only trust that the same will be said of the title race.

THREE TO WATCH IN ITALY

FABRIZIO MICCOLI (JUVENTUS)

Known as il nano (the gnome), the 24-year-old striker made giant strides on loan at Perugia last year. His burrowing runs can wreak havoc among opposition defences, and his habit of finding the net from long range bodes well for the tough task of attempting to dislodge either Alessandro Del Piero or David Trezeguet from the starting line-up. Just breaking into the national side.

OLIVIER DACOURT (ROMA)

Took his time to settle at the Stadio Olimpico after his loan move from Leeds in January, but his return to form coincided with Roma's better moments in a disappointing season. Now the deal is permanent, he can get on with marshalling a midfield badly in need of back up for the inspirational Emerson. Well liked by the Giallorossi fans for his uncompromising style, but referees could be busy.

EMRE BELOZOGLU (INTERNAZIONALE)

Had his moments in his debut season but was injured too frequently. Inter rely on him to provide the creative spark in an effective but predictable unit, and his already well-tuned relationship with the striker Christian Vieri could give them the impetus to really challenge Juventus. Earned sympathy for his tears when Inter lost to Milan in the Champions' League semi-final.

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