The Closest Race in Years: Serie A 2023/24 Preview
With the 122nd edition of Serie A beginning this weekend, we take a look at all the main runners and riders in the Italian top-flight fighting for the right to win the prestigious Scudetto title.
Each team’s chances of glory will be assessed, we will find out who their main men are and cast an eye over their summer transfer dealings.
What a season it turned out to be for Luciano Spalletti and Napoli, from going from unfancied nearly men to clinching their first Scudetto title in 33 years.
The Partenopei’s triumph was impressive and in the end by a canter producing an exuberant brand of attacking football to win Italy’s top-flight by 16 points, whilst suffering defeat on just four occasions.
Spalletti’s side’s glory was all the more impressive having lost three of his side’s key players in club stalwarts Kalidou Koulibaly, Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens prior to the start of the campaign.
The Italian’s reinforcements though would be inspired. The capture of Georgian playmaker Kvicha Kvaratskhelia from Dinamo Batumi for just €10 million would provide Napoli with the perfect creative partner in crime for mercurial striker Victor Osimhen who would go on to top score the division with 26 goals.
Kvaratskhelia, oozing class, skill and flair would accumulate a dozen goals and 10 assists in a stunning breakout season which earnt the league’s MVP award for the best player, whilst his displays continue to cast plenty of admiring eyes from many of Europe’s top teams flocking to the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium.
It would not be all about attack, however, as defensively the Partenopei would often be impenetrable, particularly on home soil where their frugal defense would concede a mere 15 times. The colossal South Korean Kim-Min-Jae an often-unsung hero following his €18 million move from Fenerbahçe.
Whilst Napoli managed to fend off Saudi Arabian advances for Osimhen for now and Kvaratskhelia seemingly happy for another 12 months in Naples, the same could not be said of Kim when Bavarian giants Bayern Munich came calling to meet the South Korean’s €50 million release clause.
It was the departure of Spalletti after two seasons that has taken the Partenopei by the most surprise after reported tensions with club president Aurelio De Laurentiis led to the Italian walking away from the club.
In has come former Roma and Lille manager Rudi Garcia – the man who discovered Eden Hazard, after an ill-fated nine-month spell in charge of Saudi Arabian side Al-Nassr.
Having lost Kim, the Frenchman’s first foray into the transfer market has seen the 59-year-old rubber stamp a €12 million move for Red Bull owned Bragantino’s 22-year-old Brazilian centre half Natan to fill the void. Comfortable in possession, Natan fits the Napoli possession-based philosophy of playing out from the back, but the jury will be out to whether he can fit the South Korean rather large shoes.
In a quiet transfer window so far for the Campania-based side, Italy forwards Giovanni Simeone and Giacomo Raspadori are the other notable additions making their loan moves permanent from Hellas Verona and Sassuolo respectively.
Expect further additions in midfield in the last fortnight of the window after the end of Tottenham Hotspur enforcer Tanguy Ndombele’s season-long loan ended and the continued Saudi speculation over Pole Piotr Zielinski.
Back-to-back titles are not out of the question for the Partenopei if Napoli can keep hold of their main stars, however, in recent times no club has retained the Serie A title since Juventus in 2020 with four different winners in as many seasons. No less than a top-four finish will be acceptable for Garcia who will need to hit the ground running quickly to warm to the home faithful.
The surprise package of 2022/23 has to go to Maurizio Sarri’s Lazio. A runner-up placing is the highest league position in recent times for the white and Sky-Blue side of Rome. Not since winning the Scudetto title in 2000 have Lazio finished as high in the standings. Nothing to be sniffed at then and monumental considering the previous seasons league top scorer and Italy frontman Ciro Immobile, such an important part of Sarr’s side spent large parts of the campaign on the sidelines injured.
Lazio stepped up to be counted as ‘Sarrismo’ took over at Lazio, a club with one of the lesser of the ‘big six’ financial budgets. Early season form seeing I Biancoceslesti fall to just one defeat in their first dozen league encounters, a reverse to Napoli the only blemish of a stellar first part of the season before the World Cup break.
In truth, whilst others faltered Lazio’s position in Italy’s top four never seemed in doubt such had been the performances produced by their workman-like side through a consistent season of stability in defense, with only champions Napoli conceding fewer.
The impressive Ivan Provedel turned out to be an absolute steal in goals after a €2.3m move from Spezia. The Italian keeping 21 clean sheets, a feat only beaten by Barcelona’s Marc Andre ter Stegen in Europe’s top five leagues.
The Biancoceslesti also had their unsung heroes at the other end of the pitch, Brazilian’s Felipe Anderson and Luis Alberto’s scored important goals earning Sarri’s side crucial points in key moments of the season. The former scoring the winner against bitter rivals Roma in November as the white and blues completed a derby double for the first time in 11 years.
This campaign there will be the added pressure of a foray into the Champions League, something that will test Sarri’s squad depth, that despite competing in the Europa Conference League over prior campaigns has never been the former Chelsea manager’s main focus.
The loss of Serbian assist merchant Sergej Milinkovic-Savic so long the star in the middle of the park will be a massive blow in competing for a top-four spot this time around after his big-money move to Al Hilal. In has come Japanese World Cup star Daichi Kamada to fill the creative duties from Eintracht Frankfurt, whilst €15m of the 34 accumulated has been spent on Argentine forward Taty Castellanos from New York City to provide options in attack.
With others strengthening significantly and the distraction of Europe, repeating last season’s exploits may be a bridge too far for Sarri’s side, competing with Roma for the final top-four berth will be the minimal target, however.
At the beginning of 2022/23, you would have been hard-pressed to have found many to back anything but a titanic struggle for the title between the two gladiators of Italy’s second city Milan.
Europe’s fashion capital Milan may be off the pitch, however on the pitch things certainly haven’t been pretty and certainly not on trend at times as both suffered spells of inconsistencies trying to keep up with the Napoli runaway train.
For Inter, the highs of ending Spalletti’s side’s 15-game unbeaten run showed their undoubted talent and tactical nuance under Simone Inzaghi, but 12 losses in 38 showed at times when the going got tough as did Inter’s resolve.
The Nerazzurri were very much all or nothing drawing just three times in their league campaign but were dominant in the knockout format of cup competitions bringing home silver wear for the second season in a row by triumphing 2-1 over Fiorentina in the Coppa Italia in May.
Bragging rights were firmly held in the black and navy side of Milan with victory over their great rivals Milan in the Super Coppa Italia and in both legs of their Champions League Semi-Final. Whilst only a solitary goal stopped Inzaghi’s team from denying Pep Guardiola’s Man City becoming kings of Europe, but that’s Inter, either half full or half empty.
This summer’s transfer window in Italy has been dominated by English and Saudi movements. For Inter, Premier League riches proved too much to turn down for goalkeeper Andre Onana who left for Manchester United for €50 million, whilst club stalwart and Croatian midfielder Marcelo Brozovic moved to the Middle East ending a ten year stay at the club.
Whilst Inter remain in the hunt to bring in former striker Romelu Lukaku from Chelsea after memories of yester-years performances, the Nerazzurri have not been able to agree a deal with either Chelsea or the Belgian.
In has come the slightly less headline making signings of Marcus Thuram from Borussia Monchengladbach and Udinese’s Marko Arnautovic to support an attack which has also lost the aerial presence of Edin Dzeko, whilst creatively the latest in the line of the Sassuolo product line, midfielder Davide Frattesi is an exciting addition. An eye-catching season which brought seven goals also attracting glances of former Italy boss Roberto Mancini to earning the youngster six caps for his country including a starring role in the 3-2 Nations League third play-off victory over Netherlands in June.
Inter will no doubt be amongst the favourites and will want to reclaim their crown won in 2021. Much will depend on regaining the consistencies that achieved that success and the form of striker Lautaro Martinez whose 21 goals in Serie A proved pivotal to his side’s achievements last season. Having started poorly in the last campaign, Inter were always playing catch-up. Early points on the board this time could lead to a charge toward a 20th title.
It’s safe to say that 2022/23 was a season to forget for Stefano Pioli and Milan. Having entered as Serie A champions, a spate of injuries to key personnel and poor recruitment from former technical director Paulo Maldini were heavy catalysts to a disappointing campaign.
A Champions League run to the Semi-Final stage and fourth-place finish to enable qualification for Europe’s elite cup competition masked over what was less than satisfactory for the Rossoneri at the end of the season where grumblings of discontent were echoed loudly at the midpoint calling for change.
Confidence in Pioli, the man responsible for the sides first title in ten years is still there for now with the blame landing in club legend Maldini’s lap for the club’s failures on and off the pitch.
Milan as much as they would not like to admit though are a side in transition. Looking to un-write the wrongs of the previous year, new chief executive Giorgio Furlani has been relentless in his pursuit to strengthen selection to what was an experienced but aging squad.
The early summer departure of key playmaker Sandro Tonali to Newcastle at a record fee for an Italian player at €70 million has been a major blow, as was the loss of on-loan Real Madrid midfield star Brahim Diaz who has now gone back to his parent side. However, the money raised from Pioli has tripled Milan’s transfer budget to strengthen the squad that was badly exposed for quality and depth. Injuries played a part with influential French goalkeeper Mike Maignan spending large parts on the sidelines, but the same excuses will not be tolerated in this campaign.
In has come the Chelsea duo of Ruben Loftus Cheek and American playmaker Christian Pulisic to pull the strings aimed at feeding talismanic forward Rafael Leao.
The Portuguese internationals new contract for Milan in the spring tying him to the club for a further three years though has been their best piece of business. Having been starved at times in front of goal in the last 12-months, one would think the promise of support this time around would have been part of the deal.
Whilst Leao’s explosive pace on the counter attack got Milan out of jail at times, additional support on the flanks have been long overdue and have been addressed with Villarreal’s Samuel Chukwueze and AZ speedster Tijani Reijnders, whilst steel and defensive protection comes in the form of American Yunus Musah an €18 million capture from Valencia.
There will be no more sights of the enigma that is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, now freshly retired from football, but don’t be surprised if the newly formed Milan are right up with the title contenders come the end of the season. Three cup defeats and a league loss to bitter rivals Inter, however, will not be tolerated for a second successive season.
Wiley manager Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta continued once again to overachieve despite working on lesser resources than their heavyweight rivals.
Calling the previous season’s finish of eighth place in Serie A a disappointment shows the wizardry Gasperini has conjured in his seven years at the club where European finishes have been achieved in all but one of them.
A fifth-place finish and qualification to the Europa League was impressive with a new breed of exciting youngsters, taking over from the likes of seasoned campaigners Luis Muriel and Duvan Zapata.
The chief tormentor in the ranks is exciting Dutchman Teun Koopmeiners who makes Atalanta tick. A breathtaking chip from just inside the opposition half’s technical area on the way to a hat-trick against Monza, one of many highlights from an eventful season at the Gewiss Stadium that accumulated 10 league goals.
A mention also has to go to the transformation of Nigerian forward Ademola Lookman who now looks a shadow of the player familiar to fans of Fulham, Everton and Leicester City.
Lookman has always had devastating pace, but new-found strength and composure saw a decent return of 13 goals including a memorable double in the 3-3 draw with Juventus at the Allianz stadium.
Whilst star striker Ramus Hojland has moved on to pastures new at Manchester United. The hefty €80m fee gained from the Danish international’s sale after just a year at the club has given the Nerazzuri plenty of room to maneuver in the transfer market.
Clever investment by Gasperini is nothing new, this season’s outlay on Gianluca Scamacca after a miserable year in London from West Ham United, beating off both Inter and Roma to the striker’s signature could though prove to be a stroke of genius. Whilst the signing of Everton target El Bilal Toure ticks all the boxes of an Atalanta forward of old after moving from Spanish side Almeria – the same club that launched the breakthrough of Liverpool target man Darwin Nunez.
The best piece of business of all, however, has been 65-year-old Gasperini’s decision to stay on for another two seasons. Expect more surprises and another European push, in the closest race title race in years expect the Nerazzuri to have a say in the final outcome.
When Jose Mourinho is in town things are never likely to be quiet. The ‘special one’ is now in his third season at the Stadio Olimpico. It’s fair to say there have been many ups and downs, the triumph of silverware of the Europa Conference League in the Portuguese first season appeased the Gialolrossi supporters, but after a solid initial 12 months in charge, the following season saw discontent amongst the red and gold.
Roma’s sixth-place finish was bemoaned after Mourinho prioritised the Europa League over the final few rounds of league action. The hope was to gain qualification to the Champions League via the winners placing, however, defeat in the final to Sevilla on penalties in May ended their chances even before the debacle over the re-emergence of Juventus’ penalty point sanction had resurfaced.
In short, despite the ifs and buts, it cannot be argued that Roma were just not good enough last season, failing to win 20 out of their 38 matches.
Mourinho’s biggest issue is the continued lack of funding to strengthen his side, something the Portuguese has rarely had to factor in his illustrious managerial career. His end-of-season comedic Social Media response of unveiling an invisible signing illustrating his frustrations in a way only the special one can.
General manager Tiago Pinto though has performed miracles in this summer’s transfer market raising €30m to meet financial fair play relegations by selling fringe players, but it looks to be another season of mediocrity in the capital city unless further investment can be found.
The free transfer signings of Houssem Aouar and Evan N’Dicka have hardly whet the appetite of the Gialolorossi but could be pivotal in providing depth for Mourinho’s side.
Whilst the Paris St Germain duo of Renato Sanches and Leandro Paredes certainly have the caliber to improve the numbers in the creativity department and will take the burden off talisman Lorenzo Pellegrini in providing chances for Argentine World Cup winner Pablo Dybala. The risk for Roma is that the signings show an element of gamble with both spending more time in the treatment room than on the pitch in recent times.
Commanding centre half Roger Ibanez’s recent departure to Al-Ahli will be a blow to Mourinho, however, the excessive fee has freed up funds for further new faces. Finding a replacement for ACL victim Tammy Abraham, however, will be crucial if Roma are to have any chance of a top-four finish.
It was certainly a turbulent season for Juventus and pragmatic manager Massimiliano Allegri after points deductions and accusations over financial wrong-doing effectively sabotaged any hope of success on the pitch having flirted within the top four placings.
Injuries also played a major part in spoiling Allegri’s meticulous plan of challenging Napoli for the Scudetto title with Federico Chiesa and Paul Pogba barely featuring, whilst key forward Dusan Vlahovic’s stop-started season never reached the heights envisaged by the Bianconeri support.
Flutters of hope appeared with a water-tight defense in the opening half of the campaign to keep Allegri’s side in touch with a mere six goals conceded in the first 17 games. A phenomenal record to keep the Turin-based side in sight of Napoli.
A 5-1 hiding, however, by the eventual winners seemed to start the decline as the effects of the clubs points deductions showed in performances.
Juventus were reprieved of their penalties later in the season and seemingly look likely to coast to a top-four finish, whilst reaching the semi-finals of both the Coppa Italia and Europa League.
In the topsy-turvy world of football, when your luck changes doesn’t it just. The points penalty would return, Inter would edge Juve out of a nervy cup last four two-legged tie and perennial cup winners Sevilla would dump the Old Lady out of Europe.
A seventh-place finish and a 12-month ban from European football could though be a blessing to Allegri as he looks to blood more minutes into the likes of Nicolo Fagioli and Fabio Miretta amongst many of the club’s exciting future generation of stars.
In a quiet window for the club, the additions of firepower from making the loans permanent of last season in Arkadiusz Milik and Moise Kean are solid additions, whilst USA forward Timothy Weah joins the club at a snip for 3m from Lille.
Yes, the experience of the title-winning South American’s Juan Cuardrado and Angel Di Maria will undoubtedly be missed, but with one focus this season, a top-four minimal league finish the sole aim don’t be surprised if Allegri’s young side upset’s the party at the top.