Serie A is set to begin a year in transition this weekend. In fact, this may be the last year for the Italian Serie A, as the league is set to break away from the lower leagues and reformat the competition into something more resembling the structure for Barclay's Premier League. A rebranding, complete with a new name, is almost certain to happen.
On the pitch, there will be transition as well. Inter is transitioning away from their reliance on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, having sold him to Barcelona over the summer. Juventus and Milan are both transitioning to new coaches with new systems. Roma is trying to put together another run at the Champions League after a disastrous performance last season.
More importantly, many teams are placing greater and greater focus on their youth systems and giving young players a shot. Giovinco should get regular playing time at Juventus. Balotelli and Santon will regularly see the field for Inter. Pato is still the Duck. Roberto Acquafresca, Fabio Santocroce, and a host of younger players should continue to impress for lower tier teams.
Finally, we may see some real competition for the Scudetto this year. Inter has walked away with the last four Scudettos. This year however, they will face serious competition from a Juventus squad finally fully re-integrated into the top flight, a healthy Milan squad, and a host of other squads that have built themselves solidly and are hungry to pull off an upset.
A big question remains how the Italian teams will fare in European competition. Roma is off to a good start in the Europa League having won their first two qualifiers. Fiorentina put in a good effort securing a 2-2 draw in Lisbon in Champions League qualifiers. But it will take more than solid showings in qualifiers to convince skeptics of the league. The continental opinion of the league will rest on the shoulders of Inter, Juventus, Milan, and Fiorentina. Another year where no Italian squads advance to the quarterfinals of the Champions League is not acceptable. Yet all four squads have significant flaws. They have the talent, but whether they can put it together against top flight competition will have to be seen. At any rate, Lazio, Roma, and Genoa are all high quality teams that should be driven to succeed in the Europa League rather than play nothing but reserves and youth team players.
Scudetto - Juventus. They have the strikers (Amauri, Del Piero, Iaquinta), the midfielders (Giovinco, Diego, Melo, Marchisio, and others), and the goalkeeper (Buffon). Their season will rest on the shoulders of their defense. Chiellini and Legrottaglie have the skills, but to the extent they need to rely on Fabio Cannavaro, they are screwed.
Champions League - Inter, Fiorentina, Genoa. Inter will need to figure out a system that reliably produces goals other than get the ball to Ibra and let him score a miraculous goal. The team really lacked creativity in attack last year, and while their offseason acquisitions are solid, they don't help in this area. It will give Juventus the room they need to take the title, but just barely. I see Fiorentina, Genoa, and Milan fighting it out for the third and fourth spot, and Milan failing due to an overreliance on old stars (thank you Captain Obvious). Fiorentina and Genoa have both bounced back from years in the lower divisions to build strong teams that compete smartly. They don't break the bank on transfers, they live within their means, and they succeed by finding young talent and bargain basement deals. Both should continue to do well.
Europa League - Milan, Roma. Both teams are in visible decline right now and in poor financial situations. Both have some young talented players but rely on aging stars past their prime (Totti, Pirlo, Ronaldinho). Both have serious question marks at goalkeeper and have trouble keeping defenders healthy. Over a long grind, fatigue will cause these teams to lose enough points to keep them out of the Champions League.
Coppa Italia - Palermo. Palermo has quitely put together a good team with a good coach. The volatility of their owner and the insanity of their own fans may keep them from seriously competing with some of the other squads mentioned on a season long basis, but they can string together enough wins against good competition to win some unexpected hardware this season. I'm betting that Zamparini will put enough pressure on Zenga to bring a trophy to the city, even if it is the secon-rate Coppa Italia.
Other teams to watch - Napoli, Udinese, Sampdoria. Sampdoria is worth watching simply for the pairing of Pazzini and Cassano. Udinese always plays beautiful attacking football, even if they can never defend and are extremely inconsistent. It makes their games fun to watch and they have some real solid talent, particularly captain Antonio Di Natale, Alex Sanchez, Gaetano D'Agostino and Simone Pepe. Napoli have made some interesting moves in the transfer market, especially picking up Quagliarella to pair with Lavezzi in attack. If they can put the pieces together, they can challenge for a spot in Europe.
Bonus Prediction - Roma wins the Europa League.
Young Player to Watch: Stefan Jovetic. He won't start all that often, but the 19 year old is an extremly dangerous player off the bench for Fiorentina. He's got sublime dribbling and passing skillsand a dangerous shot. If Fiorentina can find a way to work him and Mutu onto the pitch together in support of Gilardino, the team can challenge for the championship