The buzz has returned to Serie A
If there's a new feeling of buzz around the Italian Serie A this season, much of it comes down to two men who are walking, talking hype machines: Ronaldinho and José Mourinho.
It's not a knock on either one; being able to generate buzz just by showing up and being among the very best in the world at what you do are not mutually exclusive qualities. It's just that when Mourinho is able to seduce the notoriously cynical Italian media in less than 48 hours and when Ronaldinho is able to bring 40,000 fans to the San Siro just to watch him wave to the crowd, well, you know you have something special on your hands.
Of course, now they'll need to live up to the hype. Mourinho needs to surpass his predecessor, Roberto Mancini (and, given that Mancini delivered three straight titles to Inter Milan, that means the Special One will have to conjure up a Champions League crown). Ronaldinho needs to prove that 18 sub-standard months at Barcelona don't make him a washed-up property at 28. Seeing how it all pans out will be one hell of a ride.
Inter is the favorite and it really couldn't be otherwise. It's not just that Mourinho effect, it's a squad that's deep in every department. Sulley Muntari brings his hyperactivity to an already stacked midfield, which, if it buys into Mourinho's plan, will be long on ball-winning and leadership (the likes of Patrick Vieira, Esteban Cambiasso and Dejan Stankovic).
The "other" Mancini, picked up from Roma, fits seamlessly out wide in Mourinho's old school 4-3-3. If Inter picks up Ricardo Quaresma as well (negotiations are ongoing), it will have a matching pair of high-quality wide men. If it doesn't, Mourinho will have to hope that 18-year-old wunderkind Mario Balotelli really is the second coming.
Weaknesses? Well, maybe just one. In the new formation, there's room for just one striker. That begs the question of how Mourinho will keep Inter's five highly paid center forwards -- Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Hernán Crespo, Julio Cruz and the returning Adriano -- happy. Furthermore, Mourinho's system thrived with a strong, athletic target man like Didier Drogba; whatever else Ibrahimovic is (and he's penciled in as the starter), he's very different from the Ivorian international.
Across town, AC Milan embarked on its rebuilding job with gusto. The likes of Marco Borriello (who notched 19 Serie A goals for Genoa last season), Gianluca Zambrotta, Mathieu Flamini and Philippe Senderos add some much needed depth (and, Zambrotta apart, youth) to the squad.
Up front, there's an array of questions. Can Ronaldinho play week in, week out, alongside Kaká? Where does Clarence Seedorf fit? Does Alexandre Pato, still just 18, get the starting job? Or do you go for the more traditional Borriello? Or, since Milan made such a big deal out of signing him, do you give Andriy Shevchenko a shot at redemption? Too many questions for my liking.
Roma, a strong runner-up last year, looks better and could challenge, despite losing Mancini. "The Beast," Júlio Baptista, gives the Giallorossi a physical presence they haven't had in years: He's a gamble, but a smart one. John Arne Riise will come in handy in certain situations (not the most complete player, but he smacks the cover off the ball). But, most of all, Francesco Totti is fit again and Alberto Aquilani is a year older and wiser. With Luciano Spalletti, one of the few true visionary coaches around, pulling the strings, Roma will be competitive.
Having burst into a Champions League spot in its first season back in Serie A, Juventus faces a transition year. With money still a little tight (all those years away from the Champions League honey pot have taken their toll), the Bianconeri are building from the bottom up.
Olof Mellberg is a handy pickup at the back, and Amauri, if he lives up to his potential, can be a devastating force up front (though it remains to be seen how Claudio Ranieri parcels out the playing time to keep all his strikers -- Amauri, Alessandro Del Piero, Vincenzo Iaquinta and David Trezeguet -- happy).
But two other signings could prove decisive down the stretch. Christian Poulsen is a smart, uncompromising and sometimes downright nasty holding midfielder, the kind coaches love (he was integral to Sevilla's success in Spain). And tiny starlet Sebastian Giovinco is a special talent who looks ready to grow into the poor man's Leo Messi.
Fiorentina burst into the top four last season and will be difficult to dislodge. Signing Alberto Gilardino, written off by Milan, could prove to be the coup of the summer: He's still just 26 and has all the skills to be a top-drawer striker. He's the ideal man to turn the magic created by Riccardo Montolivo (another young midfielder who is going to the next level) and Adrian Mutu into goals. Meanwhile, at the back, Juan Vargas could well be the "sleeper" buy of the summer: The Peruvian left back is one of the most underrated players around.
Let's not kid ourselves, Serie A is nowhere near returning to the glory days of the early 1990s or even the big spending days of the turn of the Millennium. But, having sunk so far, so fast and having nearly self-destructed thanks to the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal of '06, financial mismanagement, myopic leadership and fan violence, you do get the sense that the league has hit rock bottom and is now on the way back.
Mourinho and Ronaldinho can do their part. But the most important thing will be remembering the mistakes and excesses of the past and steering clear of them.