Serie A Preview: Juve, Milan set for what may be tightest race in years
AC Milan, Inter and Juventus are dealing with issues heading into the new season
Napoli could be set to challenge the Big Three's strangehold in Serie A this season
Juventus has been embroiled in scandal; AC Milan has lost numerous key players
MILAN (AP) -- When Juventus lifted the Serie A title last May, many thought it heralded a new period of domination for the historic club.
Juventus looked unbeatable ... and it was unbeatable. Antonio Conte's men didn't lose a league game last season and the only defeat for the team in all competitions was in the Italian Cup final.
The question was not whether Juventus would manage to successfully defend its title in the following season, but rather its margin of victory.
However, a summer of turmoil has now thrown that in doubt. And with its closest rival, AC Milan, losing most of its top players, the upcoming season could be the tightest Serie A campaign in years.
Juventus has been forced to spend the offseason in court, with Conte and two of its players embroiled in the latest match-fixing scandal to hit Italian football.
Conte has been handed a 10-month ban, while Leonardo Bonucci and Simone Pepe were cleared. Juventus' appeal against Conte's ban was rejected on Wednesday but Juventus will appeal to Italy's sports arbitration panel .
However, while many think it could be affected by off-the-pitch distractions, Juventus has picked up where it left off last season.
The campaign has yet to begin but the club has already won two trophies, beating Napoli in the Italian Supercup and defeating Milan to lift the Berlusconi trophy.
"We are a team,'' said assistant coach Massimo Carrera, who will be standing in for Conte during his ban. "We all work together and you can see the results.''
Juve's troubles appear to have fostered an even stronger sense of team spirit in the camp, which could drive the Bianconeri to another scudetto victory.
A short distance away in Milan, Rossoneri fans have looked on in disbelief as a stream of players left AC Milan.
Not only did Milan icons Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf, Gennaro Gattuso and Filippo Inzaghi all leave the club at the end of last season, but fans also had to witness the departure of star players Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva to Paris Saint-Germain.
Mark Van Bommel and Gianluca Zambrotta have also left the club.
Players and fans alike have become disenchanted with the 2011 Serie A champion, with almost 100 supporters claiming refunds on their season tickets after Ibrahimovic and Silva were sold.
Another star player, Antonio Cassano, said he would consider leaving if Silva was sold and he has stuck to his guns, moving to city rivals Inter Milan.
The only bright spot for the red half of Milan is that the transfer saw striker Giampaolo Pazzini move the other way in a swap deal.
There is a very real sense in Italy that this is the year the traditional stranglehold of the big three on Serie A could be broken.
Apart from a brief interlude by the Roman teams, Lazio and Roma, at the turn of the millennium, the title has been won by Juventus, AC Milan or Inter Milan since 1992.
Napoli could be set to challenge that this season.
Walter Mazzarri's team has slowly become a force to be reckoned with and it delighted everyone in Europe last campaign with its free-flowing football and attacking drive.
Napoli made everyone sit up and take note when it dismantled eventual winners Chelsea 3-1 in the Champions League. The club has come a long way as evidenced by fans being disappointed with a fifth-place finish last season.
However, without the distraction of the Champions League, Napoli can have a real tilt at the Serie A title.
Many wondered if its challenge was over before it had even begun after star player and one of Napoli's so-called three tenors, Ezequiel Lavezzi, left for PSG.
But its other two tenors Edinson Cavani and Marek Hamsik remain and Napoli has invested wisely in the transfer market this summer, notably signing Velon Behrami and Alessandro Gamberini from Fiorentina, while Lorenzo Insigne has impressed in the offseason since coming back from a successful loan spell at Pescara. Goran Pandev has also made his move from Inter permanent.
Club president Aurelio de Laurentiis is confident.
"I'm strongly motivated for the new season, the scudetto should be everyone's goal,'' he said. "We will also be one of the two teams to qualify automatically for the Champions League, and we will do well in the Italian Cup and Europa League.''
Napoli's preseason form gives weight to De Laurentiis' belief. The club has won every one of its friendlies, beating the likes of Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen and Bordeaux.
It also put on an impressive showing against Juventus in the Italian Supercup and might have won had it not been for some controversial refereeing decisions, resulting in the team boycotting the post-match award ceremony.
"From the Supercup, we've become aware that we can match all the big clubs,'' Hamsik said. "This group has known each other well for three years now, its unity is our strength.
"We are focused and we know that an important season is ahead of us. I'm not going to talk about targets, I'll only say that we have matured and we can go a long way.''
Udinese could also be involved in the reckoning. Despite finishing fourth in 2011 and reaching the Champions League, many wrote the club off last season after it sold three of its top players in the offseason - Alexis Sanchez, Gokhan Inler and Cristian Zapata.
But Francesco Guidolin worked wonders again and Udinese qualified for the Champions League for the second successive year, with its third-place finish being the highest in the club's history.
His task has been made even tougher this season with the sale of yet more key players - including Kwadwo Asamoah and Mauricio Isla - to Juventus. The player whose absence will be most keenly felt is goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, whose brilliant form between the posts earned him a move to Inter.
Club icon and star striker Antonio Di Natale remains, however, and he is preparing to start his ninth season at the Stadio Friuli.
Another dark horse could be Fiorentina. The club finished a disappointing 13th last season and has had a busy summer in the transfer market, spending to bring in a host of new players, including Alberto Aquilani, David Pizarro, Borja Valero and Mattia Cassani.
New coach Vincenzo Montella says there could be more new signings before the window closes. Should the team gel quickly, Fiorentina could once again be fighting for a Champions League place and even entertaining ideas of aiming for the title.
Copyright 2012 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.