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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Can Milan or Rome clubs wrestle title away from Juventus? Five big questions for Serie A season

Optimism is high at the San Siro and in the capital that Juve's six-year reign as champions could end this season.

Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri faces arguably his toughest challenge yet as the Turin club attempt to win a sixth successive Serie A title. Alberto Lingria / Reuters
Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri faces arguably his toughest challenge yet as the Turin club attempt to win a sixth successive Serie A title. Alberto Lingria / Reuters

Ahead of the start of the new Serie A season, Ian Hawkey looks at the big questions surrounding the Italian top flight following one of the busiest off-seasons in recent years.

Can Juventus shake off the blues?

Juventus striker Gonzalo Higuain. Angelo Carconi / EPA
Juventus striker Gonzalo Higuain. Angelo Carconi / EPA

Juventus have played two cup finals in the past three months and lost both, the defeat to Lazio in the Supercoppa Italia last weekend following up the thumping by Real Madrid in the Uefa Champions League in Cardiff. More gravely, they have conceded seven goals in those two fixtures. Not the sort of habit Juve want to be taking into a new season.

Is the supremacy under threat? Juventus are chasing a seventh successive Serie A title, yet their summer has featured not only a once-solid rearguard being pierced unusually frequently in big finals, but being weakened by departures. Leonardo Bonucci joined AC Milan, Dani Alves went to Paris Saint-Germain, and Chelsea have been pursuing Alex Sandro throughout the transfer window. Maximiliano Allegri’s team start as title favourites, but with unfamiliar questions about their sturdiness.

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Can Bonucci really do a Pirlo?

AC Milan defender Leonardo Bonucci. Antonio Calanni / AP Photo
AC Milan defender Leonardo Bonucci. Antonio Calanni / AP Photo

It’s a select group of footballers who have played for all three of Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan. Bonucci, who began at Inter, made himself one of most admired central defenders in the game at Juve, has just joined that illustrious band.

What he wants, Bonucci said this week, is to do what another man who has worn all three jerseys did, Andrea Pirlo, and move from one to the other while keeping his hands on the title.

Bonucci, who fell out with Juve manager Allegri, prompting the move to Milan last month, is one of over €200 million (Dh859.7m) worth of transfers Milan have brought in. They look to have leapt up in class and should be far more competitive than they have been in the past three years.

How far can Napoli’s momentum carry them?

Napoli striker Dries Mertens. Francesco Pecoraro / Getty Images
Napoli striker Dries Mertens. Francesco Pecoraro / Getty Images

Forget the legend of Diego Maradona, star of Napoli’s last, long-ago title-winning team. This Napoli have three Ms that might just crack the elusive target, a first Serie A title since 1991. They are Mehrtens, Milik and their magnificent momentum.

Dries Mertens, the diminutive Belgian, scored 30 goals across all competitions last season. Centre-forward Arkadiusz Milik missed out on a large chunk of the campaign but still Napoli scored 94 league goals. And they dropped just four points in their last 12 games in achieving their third-place finish in 2016/17.

Hence the optimism that Napoli can go two places better this time. Unlike last summer, when Gonzalo Higuain departed, the key players have stuck together. They know they can play exhilarating football together, and believe that deserves silverware.

Is Inter’s latest manager a stayer?

Inter Milan manager Luciano Spalletti needs to strengthen his resources. Andrew Medichini / AP Photo
Inter Milan manager Luciano Spalletti needs to strengthen his resources. Andrew Medichini / AP Photo

Luciano Spalletti became Inter Milan’s fourth manager in the space of 12 months this summer. He has been around Serie A - most successfully in his two spells with Roma, the second of which he completed in June - to know how volatile his new workplace can be.

He has also watched AC Milan flex their muscles in the transfer market these past two months. Inter, aspiring to a return to the Champions League, will be concerned that, in the jostle for a top-four place, their neighbours are making a big noise.

Who rules the capital?

Lazio manager Simone Inzaghi. Alberto Lingria / Reuters
Lazio manager Simone Inzaghi. Alberto Lingria / Reuters

Roma, runners-up to Juventus in May, said one long, emotional good-bye last season, to the retiring Francesco Totti, while a fair few others quickly followed with quieter farewells, including the manager Spalletti, Egyptian forward Mohamed Salah, and German defender Antonio Rudiger. The new men in, chosen by the newly hired , admired recruiter, Monchi, who was lured from Sevilla, will be scrutinised, in particular the performances of midfielder Lorenzo Pellegrini and defender Hector Moreno.

Meanwhile Lazio, under the impressive Simone Inzaghi, are relatively unchanged. They target a finish as high as they managed last season. The difference is that fourth place in 2017/18 will be far more valuable than it was in May: Italy’s Champions League quota is up from three teams to four. The capital wants two of those spots, and so does the city of Milan.

Ian Hawkey's five players to watch for the 2017/18 Serie A season: