Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 19 September 2019

Franck Ribery the unretiring type and Mario Balotelli comes home: Serie A talking points

Ahead of the 2019/20 Serie A season, which begins on Saturday, Ian Hawkey highlights the players to keep an eye out for

New Fiorentina signing Franck Ribery, 36, arrives in Florence ahead of signing a two-year-deal with the Italian side. EPA
New Fiorentina signing Franck Ribery, 36, arrives in Florence ahead of signing a two-year-deal with the Italian side. EPA

Unretiring types

With the hours ticking down to Matchday 1, Serie A’s transfer market remains hectic. As the champions, Juventus, explore the options for a new centre-forward, an eye-catching announcement seems imminent in Tuscany. Fiorentina hope Franck Ribery, the France winger who has just said farewell to a glorious 12 years at Bayern Munich, will add his name to the club's long list of distinguished flair players.

Ribery is 36, but still with much to offer at the elite level. He need only look at Serie A’s accommodation of fit, inventive thirtysomethings to believe it is an environment in which he can thrive. Last season’s leading scorer in the division was, after all, Fabio Quagliarella, who struck 26 goals for Sampdoria, five more than Juventus’ Cristiano Ronaldo - an ageless 34 - managed in his first campaign in Italy. Quagliarella turns 37 in January.

This summer a pair of notable young, Italian goalscoring prospects have departed Italy - Moise Kean from Juve to Everton, Patrick Cutrone from AC Milan to Wolverhampton Wanderers - while seasoned strikers such as Gonzalo Higuain - back from his loan to Chelsea to Juve - and Kevin-Prince Boateng - to Fiorentina, after a brief spell at Barcelona - have returned. So, is Serie A conforming to an old stereotype, as a veterans’ playground?

Not exactly. Precocious talents such as 20-year-old Nicolo Zaniolo at Roma, and Napoli’s midfield recruit, the teenaged Eljif Elmas, hope 2019/20 will launch them as household names. And much attention will focus on Matthijs de Ligt, still 19 and the most expensive defender, since his summer move from Ajax to Juventus, in the sport if the add-ons in his deal are taken into account. De Ligt could well end up costing Juve over €85m in fees.

Inter Milan, shaping up as Juve’s leading challengers, have invested not far shy of that total in the proven goalscoring of Romelu Lukaku. Lukaku versus De Ligt, on the first weekend in October, is one duel to mark out in the diary. So is Lukaku versus Lukaku: Romelu against younger brother Jordan, the Lazio full-back, next month.

Supermarioland

Another striker with some miles on the clock is also back in Italy. In his case, it is a genuine homecoming. Mario Balotelli grew up in Brescia, came under the care of his adoptive parents there, and will now lends his experience and, the city hopes, his brilliance to the cause of keeping promoted Brescia Calcio in Serie A.

Balotelli, 29 and formerly of Internazionale, AC Milan, Manchester City, Liverpool, Nice and most recently Marseille, last played in Italy’s top flight more than three years ago. He scored his last goal in Italian league football almost four years ago, for Milan in what turned out to be the least successful of his two spells with the Rossoneri.

Which version of the mercurial, moody Super Mario blesses Brescia is hard to gauge. His last three seasons, in France’s Ligue 1, yielded an impressive 41 goals in 73 outings, but his six months with Marseille, having started superbly, ended with a whimper. A red card - one of several in his career - at the tail-end of last season means Balotelli is suspended well into next month, and eligible only to make his Serie A bow for Bescia on Matchday 5. That, as it happens, is when Juventus come to town.

Mario Balotelli poses with Brescia president Massimo Cellino after signing for his hometown club. EPA
Mario Balotelli poses with Brescia president Massimo Cellino after signing for his hometown club. EPA

Azzurri-lite at the summit

Roberto Mancini, manager of Italy, sent congratulations to Balotelli as soon as his return to Serie A was sealed. Manager and player may have had their differences as boss and employee at Manchester City, but Mancini sees a thriving, happy Balotelli, who has won 36 caps, as part of his plans. And any Italy international in Serie A is welcome: Mancini has concerns about how much starting-XI time some of his trusted players will get at the leading Italian clubs. Even Azzurri vice-captain Leo Bonucci’s hold on a first-team place at Juventus is challenged by the arrival of De Ligt.

Ninth time lucky?

What prospect of Juventus’ iron grip on the scudetto being loosened? With the man who who first imposed the clasp, guiding Juve to three of what has grown to eight successive Serie A titles, now in charge of Inter, a chance ... perhaps. Antonio Conte’s taking over as head of Inter Milan will unnerve the champions, while they will note that Carlo Ancelotti, another ex-Juve coach, is designing Napoli to be more consistent this season than last.

The medal tally on the challengers' benches is certainly impressive. Ancelotti and Conte boast eight league titles across four different leagues between them. Juve’s new boss, Maurizio Sarri, whose first major trophy was last May’s Europa League at Chelsea, has some catching up to do on that pair.

Updated: August 22, 2019 12:55 PM

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