By James Goyder
Inter Milan took advantage of the 2006 match fixing scandal to gain a stranglehold in Italian football which they have never looked like relinquishing. The 2005/06 Serie A title was awarded to Inter Milan retrospectively and they have not looked back, winning every single subsequent Serie A outright.
It had been a long wait for Inter who had last won the title in 1989 but once they saw their opportunity they pounced. As teams all around them lost their best players Inter Milan set about systematically strengthening their squad often by bringing in players from their nearest rivals.
The club capitalized on Juventus’s relegation to ruthlessly relieve ‘The Old Lady’ of her most valuable assets, midfield enforcer Patrick Vieira and prolific striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The following season saw Juventus languishing in Serie B and AC Milan struggling to recover from an eight point deduction and the loss of Andrei Shevchenko. As a result Inter Milan dominated Serie A putting together an unprecedented 17 match win streak.
They have dominated ever since and will be looking to win the Scudetto for the sixth consecutive season. They will be strong favorites to do so as they remain significantly stronger than any of the other teams in the division.
There is however some light at the end of the tunnel for the likes of Roma, AC Milan and Juventus. It appears that the days of uninhibited spending at Inter Milan may be coming to an end. This season they have yet to make a single signing, although Dirk Kuyt remains a possible arrival, while have lost the services of controversial striker Mario Balotelli to Manchester City.
Having finally added the Champions League to his growing collection of Serie A titles perhaps chairman Massimo Moratti is now content to sit on their laurels. The timing is somewhat prescient with UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Regulations set to take effect from the 2013/14 season.
It is however a little less fortunate for new manager Rafael Benitez who is expected to follow in the footsteps of treble winner Jose Mourinho without access to anything like the same financial resources. The good news for Benitez is that the team which dominated Italy and Europe last season has at least remained intact.
No-one else in Serie A can boast a strike force such as Diego Milito and Samuel Eto, aided and abetted by Diego Pandev. None of the other teams have a creative midfielder capable of performing at a similar level to Wesley Sneijder, or a central defensive pairing as consistent as that of Lucio and Walter Samuel.
Such is the inequality that exists in Serie A that Inter Milan were able to sign Roma’s best defender, Christian Chivu, a few years ago and then stick him on the bench. Mancini, who was just starting to make a name for himself as a world class winger at Roma, made the same switch a year later and Inter Milan barely bother playing him. Roma meanwhile were forced to borrow a centre back from Inter Milan last season, Nicolas Burdisso, and he did so well that Benitez appears understandably reluctant to lend him to his team’s nearest rivals again.
Roma pushed Inter right to the wire last time around but have not had a particularly productive pre season. Nicolas Burdisso’s brother, Guillermo, who is also a centre back arrives from Argentina. Whether he has been signed to replace his sibling or to persuade the older Burdisso to spend another season in Roma colors remains to be seen.
A pair of Brazilians have also been signed. Simplicio will bolster the midfield while Adriano is as likely to bolster the coffers of various Rome nightclubs and bars as make a worthwhile contribution on the pitch. He was once the best striker on the planet but his name has been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent years (being linked to a notorious Brazilian drug lord was a low) and the term ‘gamble’ just does not do justice to this particular signing.
Juventus, by contrast, have had an extremely busy summer as they seek to improve upon a decidedly disappointing seventh place finish last time around. New manager Luigi Delneri has been on a spending spree which is exorbitant by Serie A standards.
Serbian winger Milos Krasic has been signed from CSKA Moscow and Uruguayan winger Jorge Martinez from Catania. They will be joined by midfielder Alberto Aquilani, who has arrived on loan from Liverpool, defender Leonardo Bonucci from Bari, goalkeeper Marco Storari from Milan, winger Davide Lanzafame on loan from Palermo and winger Simone Pepe on loan from Udinese.
The most surprising aspect of Juventus’s pre season spending spree, apart from the fact that they were able to actually find the cash with which to finance it, is just how many wingers were signed. Serie A is notoriously defensive and most teams employ additional central midfielders at the expense of the wingers. AC Milan, Juventus and Roma barely boast a single winger between them so it will be interesting to see to see what sort of impact a team featuring two good old fashioned wide players can have.
Talk of Zlatan Ibrahimovic arriving on loan at AC Milan seems a little far fetched but the side will need to look to acquire players of this sort of caliber if they are ever to challenge for the Scudetto again. Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Mario Yepes and Kevin Prince Boateng are not the sort of signings likely to restore the Rossoneri to their former glory and the arrival of Ibrahimovic would represent an enormous coup.
Roma, AC Milan and Juventus will each be looking to get one more season out of an ageing talisman. Fransesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero have been inspirational figures for Roma and Juventus all their careers. Ronaldinho demonstrated lat season that he could potentially perform a similar role for AC Milan. The form and fitness of these three will clearly be crucial to each of their respective sides.
Sampdoria, Palermo and Napoli all finished above Juventus last time around and all will be looking to break into the Champions League places. Sampdoria actually managed it last season, finishing fourth, and Giampaolo Pazzini and Antonio Cassano form one of the most effective strike partnerships in Serie A. Perversely their premature exit from the Champions League at the hands of Werder Bremen might enhance their chances of finishing in the top four again.
The biggest piece of Serie A business saw striker Edison Cavani swap Palermo for Napoli and the balance of power between the two clubs may well shift accordingly. Napoli also managed to keep hold of dynamic midfielder Marek Hamsik and slowly but surely they are continuing to improve.
Genoa have been very active in the transfer market with the most notable of an entire army of arrivals being veteran striker Luca Toni, Brazilian defender Rafinha and Portugese midfielder Miguel Veloso.
While Inter will feel confident of their superiority there is very little to choose between the teams in the chasing pack. With AC Milan in decline Roma and Juventus appear the most likely to put in a credible title challenge but any one of the teams already mentioned are capable of surpassing expectations and finishing in the top four.
Fiorentina will want to improve upon last season’s ninth place finish but with Stefan Jovetevic and Adrian Mutu set to miss much of the campaign due to injury and suspension respectively the club’s Champions League days may well be behind them, at least in the immediate future.
At the other end of the table Cagliari, Catania and Chievo are the latest additions to Serie A and all are expected to struggle. Bari surpassed expectations by finishing tenth last season but it is a feat they are unlikely to repeat and they may find themselves sucked into a relegation battle which could also involve Bologna, Cagliari, Udinese or Catania.
Inter Milan might well suffer from some sort of a footballing hangover after last season’s exploits under Mourinho. Motivation could also be a problem and if things do start to go wrong Benitez will be faced with the unenviable task of tinkering with a treble winning team.
Mourinho set an impossible standard and if results do not go his way the tide will soon turn against Benitez. If this does happen Juventus look the team most likely to capitalize but the reality is that Inter Milan are still in possession of much better players than any of their rivals. It will take an Inter Milan implosion for any other team to win Serie A this season.