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Conte hunting a hat-trick as Rafa rolls back into town

Rather than big-name moves it was the coaching merry-go-round that dominated Italian football over the summer.


Edinson Cavani’s €60 million switch from Napoli to PSG was a mere sideshow to the uncertainty over who would be occupying the benches at Serie A’s top clubs on the opening day. 


After retaining the league title Antonio Conte was odds-on to stay and seek a hat-trick at Juventus, but for a moment there were doubts the 44-year-old would remain in Turin until it became clear the club would invest in new signings. So in came Carlos Tevez to join Fernando Llorente in attack, along with Italy international Angelo Ogbonna to offer competition in defence.


Having finished second, Napoli already knew they would be seeking a replacement for outgoing coach Walter Mazzarri. 


After four years in the job and an ever-strained relationship with owner Aurelio De Laurentiis, it became clear long before the curtain dropped that Mazzarri would be on his way, with Rafa Benitez sounded out about a return to Italy well before the season's end.


The Spaniard has something to prove, though, having suffered rejection at Inter after failing to dispel the long shadow of Jose Mourinho’s treble-winning exploits. He’s been given plenty of new talent to work with on the back of Cavani’s exit, however, whisking Gonzalo Higuain away from under Arsenal’s noses. 


Now it's a question of how quickly his new arrivals can gel to ensure the Azzurri hit the ground running. It was a mixed bag for Benitez in pre-season, where an impressive display against the Gunners at the Emirates was followed by a defensive collapse against Porto.

However, it’s not as if the other title contenders fared any better over the summer: Juve lost to Everton on penalties in San Francisco before going down 3-1 to LA Galaxy. A furious Conte accused his players of lacking desire - California dreaming, you might say. However, The Old Lady shook off the dog days in empathic style with a 4-0 thrashing of Lazio in the Italian Super Cup to send a stark warning to the rest that she hasn’t lost any of her desire to remain the dominant force.


While Conte can look forward to the new campaign with continued confidence the pressure is rising for AC Milan chief Massimiliano Allegri, who ended last season without a trophy and outside the top two. 


It’s no secret the Tuscan doesn’t enjoy the full confidence of Silvio Berlusconi, and it was only the intervention of  right-hand man Adriano Galliani, together with the reported financial demands of Clarence Seedorf – somewhere in the region of €15m including staff requests – that saved him.

Unemployment wouldn’t have lasted long, however - AS Roma were ready to offer a fresh star in the capital before being left with Rudi Garcia. But Allegri does not return believing his worries are behind him.


He may have a Mario Balotelli potentially good for 20+ goals but there has been little in the way of quality arrivals. The defence looks threadbare beyond the first-choice back four, as demonstrated by the reserves leaking five goals in 30 minutes against Manchester City. 


However, it is qualification for the Champions League group stage that is taxing Milan minds even before the domestic season begins. Stephan El Shaarawy’s away goal has given them the edge after a 1-1 draw at PSV Eindhoven but a slip-up next week at the San Siro would send the club into a tailspin they may find difficult to recover from, such is the fragility within the Berlusconi empire.


Across town there is also little hope of a revival at Inter where Mazzarri, also linked with Roma before eventually replacing Andrea Stramaccioni, must build a side from particularly weak foundations. 

The old guard are still hanging around but it is asking too much of new signings Mauro Icardi and Ishak Belfoldil, together with the talented Mateo Kovacic, to carry a team that failed to qualify for Europe and cannot afford to miss out again.


FEATURE Meet Mauro Icardi: The man to reignite Inter's attack


How far La Beneamata have fallen could be witnessed by their unusually early entry to the Italian Cup and, while Juve were warming up to crush Lazio, Inter were putting four past lowly Cittadella in front of a few thousand spectators inside the San Siro.


While the big four were coming out second best in high-profile tournaments Stateside, the real dark horse of the new campaign, Fiorentina, were quietly assembling a team capable of breaking into the top three.


Vincenzo Montella’s team were left with the heartbreak of missing out on the Champions League preliminary stage when Milan hit a late winner at Siena on the final day, but rather than lament their missed opportunity the Viola once again made astute moves in the transfer market.


Mario Gomez could be the transfer coup of the summer, a true out-and-out striker the Tuscans were missing last year. 


Roma fans have seen three coaches come and go over the last two years but Frenchman Garcia has been brave enough to accept the challenge. He arrives with something of a winning pedigree at least, having led Lille to the Ligue 1 title and French Cup in 2011.

The Giallorossi are set to be as exciting and terrible in equal measure but if they get off to a positive start we could find ourselves in something of a five-horse race for the top three positions – well, make that the runners-up spot and third place.


We fancy Juventus, Fiorentina and Napoli to make up the top three, leaving Roma and Milan to battle for fourth with the Rossoneri, at the moment, favourites. 


Udinese will hope to spring a surprise again with the ageless Antonio Di Natale, who could catch the Rossoneri and Giallorossi on the hop. Lazio, meanwhile, will be pushing for Cup glory once more – but look out for Parma, with Antonio Cassano hoping for a glorious swansong. 


Catania will be looking for a top-10 finish, while Sampdoria and Genoa will aim to put last season’s woes behind them despite a distinct lack of quality this time around. Bologna and Cagliari will play their hearts out until survival is guaranteed before the final month, leaving the three promoted sides Sassuolo, Hellas Verona and Livorno, to battle for survival with Atalanta, Torino and Chievo.