Ten storylines to follow in Serie A
Antonio Cassano's signing will be boom or bust for AC Milan
Lazio will need playmaker Hernanes to maintain his superb form
Both Napoli and Palermo are on the rise due to exciting young talent
These are the top 10 storylines to keep an eye on in 2011 as Serie A resumes play:
1. Will Antonio Cassano help or hurt Milan?
There is no questioning his talent, but is it really wise to bring in a potential head case like Fantantonio in a team that was just achieving some balance? Milan really started performing well once coach Massimiliano Allegri went with the Zlatan Ibrahimovic-Robinho partnership. He was able to do this because Pato was hurt and Ronaldinho on his way out. Pato is now fit and will want to play. And, so too, will Cassano. Given that three of Milan's four strikers are notoriously outspoken when unhappy, it's a huge gamble.
2. What will the future bring for Gigi Buffon?
Has probably been the best goalkeeper in the world over the past decade. And he's still 32, which means he has plenty left in the tank. But he's been injured since Italy's opener in the ill-fated World Cup. And, in his absence, Marco Storari has played well. Buffon hasn't appreciated some of the comments coming out of the club, like when coach Gigi Del Neri said he wouldn't be "an automatic choice" when he returns. It's an open secret that, for the right price, Juve will sell, not least because he's among the highest-paid players in Serie A and has two and a half years left on his contract (if you're going to cash in, the time is now or in the summer). He's close to full fitness and Europe has been alerted. Watch this space.
3. What will happen to Roma?
Potential buyers have until the end of January to submit their bids for the giallorossi who have pretty much been on financial life support for the past few years. Unicredit, the bank that holds most of the debt (and shares) is looking far and wide with rumored interest coming from the United States, Russia, Asia and the Gulf. It's not a mystery why. Roma is a sleeping giant: huge local fan base (more than a million people crammed into the Circo Massimo to celebrate the last title in 2001), large catchment area, excellent youth system, untapped resources. The right buyer with the right vision could turn the giallorossi into a European power, especially in the age of Financial Fair Play.
4. Was Leonardo the right choice for Inter?
He's young, he's handsome, he's a polyglot, he showed last season that he can play attractive football. He's also a guy who spent a dozen years at crosstown rival AC Milan, in various guises: player, coach, front office. Inter fans don't seem to mind (after all, he did slam the door behind him when he left the rossoneri), the question is whether he can get the best out of a veteran group of players while also leading the rebuilding job the club desperately needs. And whether he can do it on a budget.
5. Will the Prophet lead Lazio to the promised land?
Hernanes has stood head and shoulders over every other player in Serie A (with the possible exception of Javier Pastore) since landing in Rome in the summer. And Lazio has responded, occupying first or second place in the Serie A table since October. It's been smoke and mirror stuff, maximum results with minimum effort. Most pundits predicted Lazio's luck would run out a long time ago. And yet there it is, proving everybody wrong. For how much longer, though?
6. Twenty years after Diego Maradona left, can history repeat itself in Napoli?
Few places on Earth are as intensely passionate as Naples (check out this insanity... plenty like it on YouTube) and few have suffered as much over the past two decades. Twenty years after Maradona tested positive for cocaine -- earning himself a 15-month ban and setting off the club's inexorable decline -- happy times are here again. A live-wire coach (Walter Mazzarri), a spiky-haired goal-scoring midfielder (Marek Hamsik), a little Argentine genius who at times reminds of you-know-who (Ezequiel Lavezzi) and from this season, a legitimate big man to lead the line (Edinson Cavani) and presto! -- "Il Ciuccio" is flying again. But the key ingredient may well be the savvy stewardship of owner Aurelio De Laurentiis, who doesn't kowtow to the fans or the media, but simply runs a tight ship, one which is sailing toward the Champions' League.
7. Palermo's young stars continue to shine, but will they do it at La Favorita?
Not many teams can boast a nucleus of youngsters as talented as the rosanero. Abel Hernandez (20), Josip Ilicic (22), Salvatore Sirigu (23), Armin Bacinovic (21) and Javier Pastore (21) form one of the best groups of fledgling talent in Serie A. They cost less than $20 million to assemble and you could comfortably sell them for five times that much today. In fact, Palermo president Maurizio Zamparini -- judging by his track record -- will do just that. The later, the better for Palermo fans as this group of children (plus an evergreen veteran like Fabrizio Miccoli) are bringing unprecedented excitement to Sicily. They may even bring Champions' League football.
8. Is Serie A taking Financial Fair Play seriously?
UEFA's new regulations are pretty clear. If you missed them, they're right here. Yet so much of Serie A seems to have its head buried in the sand. Were they already in place now, Roma, Inter and Milan wouldn't be allowed into the Champions' League. Only Juventus, among the traditional powers, is close to being FFP compliant. Either these clubs know something we don't -- like the fact that it's all a practical joke by that wacky prankster Michel Platini and there's no such thing as FFP -- or one of two things will happen: they'll sell heavily over the next two years in a mad dash to achieve compliance (thereby setting off a negative downward spiral) or they simply won't play in European competition.
9. Can Cesare Prandelli rebuild the Azzurri?
Outspoken, passionate and honest, Prandelli is a likable guy who has always stood out. He's got the tricky job of relaunching the national team after the South African debacle. Prandelli has a distinct "open door" policy, meaning he doesn't look at reputations and everyone is given a fair shot (hence the Cassano-Amauri-Mario Balotelli triumvirate we saw in his first outing). That's laudable, the downside is that it makes it harder to build a cohesive unit. The reality is that 2006 seems like a long, long time ago and only Daniele De Rossi, Buffon and possibly Alberto Gilardino from that squad are likely to be part of Italy's medium-term future.
10. What will happen to Federico Marchetti?
Seven months ago, the Cagliari goalkeeper was Italy's No. 1, following Buffon's injury. But he hasn't actually played since the Azzurri were knocked out of the World Cup at the hands of Slovakia back on June 24. Blame a ridiculous and self-destructive dispute with Cagliari owner Massimo Cellino, following a newspaper interview in which Marchetti said he hoped to move to a bigger club. This one has gone to court with an arbitration panel set to decide whether Cagliari has been bullying its goalkeeper. It will probably end with Marchetti becoming a free agent. At 27, he's reliable and athletic (though he'll probably want to forget the World Cup). Could be a smart pickup for many clubs, not just in Italy.
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