One big move changes the mood and shows Ju­ven­tus have eyes on Europe

Trans­fer coup means Ju­ven­tus want to win the Cham­pi­ons League while In­ter are likely to be their clos­est chal­lengers at home

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SOCCER - Paolo Ban­dini

This was sup­posed to be a grim sum­mer for Ital­ian foot­ball sup­port­ers. For the first time in six decades a World Cup was tak­ing place with­out their na­tional team. As the tour­na­ment in Rus­sia got un­der way, the de­part­ing sports min­is­ter, Luca Lotti, por­trayed the mo­ment as cal­cio’s “year zero”.

The fans them­selves, though, did not seem so trou­bled by the prospect of a World Cup with­out the Az­zurri. Me­di­aset recorded a cu­mu­la­tive TV au­di­ence of 297 mil­lion across the 64 games – 49 mil­lion more than the pre­vi­ous rights hold­ers, Rai and Sky, had achieved be­tween them in 2014.

Two-thirds of Ital­ian tele­vi­sions were tuned into the fi­nal on July 15th. That dis­trac­tion pro­vided Cris­tiano Ron­aldo with the per­fect win­dow in which to ar­rive un­mo­lested at Turin’s Caselle air­port and com­plete a ¤100mil­lion trans­fer from Real Madrid to Ju­ven­tus.

Year Zero? From the mo­ment the Por­tuguese for­ward touched down in his pri­vate jet this has started to feel more like YeaR7 for Serie A. Me­dia cov­er­age has por­trayed Ron­aldo not as a foot­baller but an alien, that aero­plane in fact a UFO bring­ing him to daz­zle Ital­ian au­di­ences with his oth­er­worldly tal­ent.

Such hy­per­bole was to be ex­pected. Serie A had not wit­nessed a trans­fer coup of this mag­ni­tude since the ar­rival of the Brazil­ian Ron­aldo at In­ter­nazionale from Barcelona in 2002.

A five-time Bal­lon d’Or win­ner? No player from the Ital­ian top flight has even been voted into the top three for that award in more than a decade.

Ron­aldo has al­ready made a trans­for­ma­tive im­pact off the pitch. Juve had the most so­cial me­dia in­ter­ac­tions of any foot­ball club in the world in July. On YouTube alone they recorded 36.25 mil­lion views – al­most dou­ble what they had to­talled in the pre­vi­ous six months com­bined.

For a club whose long-term am­bi­tions rest on im­prov­ing com­mer­cial rev­enue streams in line with those of the world’s very rich­est clubs – Ju­ven­tus lagged some ¤270 mil­lion be­hind Manch­ester United and Real Madrid in 2016-17 – this is al­ready a sig­nif­i­cant de­vel­op­ment. But will his im­pact on the pitch be as sig­nif­i­cant?

Am­bi­tion

“This sea­son we have the am­bi­tion to win the Cham­pi­ons League,” said the man­ager, Mas­si­m­il­iano Al­le­gri, af­ter the club’s an­nual in­tra-squad friendly at Vil­lar Perosa on Sun­day. “Af­ter two fi­nals lost [over the past four years] we are try­ing to fi­nally bring it home.”

It is not hard to see how Ron­aldo may help them to do so. The Euro­pean Cup’s all-time lead­ing goalscorer has hit dou­ble fig­ures in that com­pe­ti­tion for seven sea­sons run­ning. His goals also elim­i­nated Ju­ven­tus last term and he thwarted them in the 2017 fi­nal as well.

But does his ar­rival threaten to widen the gap be­tween Ju­ven­tus and their do­mes­tic ri­vals? The Bian­coneri have won the past seven Serie A ti­tles, not to men­tion all four edi­tions of the Coppa Italia since Al­le­gri took charge. How is any­one sup­posed to get close?

They may not, but it is not a fore­gone con­clu­sion that Ju­ven­tus will pick up more points with Ron­aldo. No mat­ter how many goals he scores, there sim­ply is not much room to im­prove on the 95 they piled up last sea­son. Be­sides, will he even play ev­ery game or could he be rested to con­serve en­ergy for big Euro­pean nights, as hap­pened in re­cent sea­sons with Madrid?

For those who hope to see Ju­ven­tus’s do­mes­tic hege­mony chal­lenged, the real ques­tion ought to be whether any ri­vals are ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing sim­i­lar con­sis­tency. Napoli got close last sea­son, amass­ing a club-record 91 points, but a step back seems prob­a­ble fol­low­ing the de­par­ture of Mau­r­izio Sarri to Chelsea.

To land Carlo Ancelotti as his re­place­ment was im­pres­sive, yet even a man who has won do­mes­tic ti­tles in Italy, Eng­land, Ger­many and France – not to men­tion three Cham­pi­ons Leagues – will have a hard time sus­tain­ing mo­men­tum. This team will need to learn a whole new way of play­ing, hav­ing also lost Jorginho as their mid­field con­duc­tor.

In­stead it is In­ter who have been billed as this sea­son’s “anti-Juve” af­ter com­pelling busi­ness in the trans­fer win­dow. Af­ter tak­ing time to in­stil an iden­tity in his team last sea­son Lu­ciano Spal­letti has now been re­united with Radja Naing­golan – a player who thrived un­der his charge at Roma. Ste­fan de Vrij and Sime Vr­saljko will bring ex­pe­ri­ence to a de­fence which had al­ready made great strides, while Lau­taro Martínez has thrilled at the other end in pre-sea­son.

A mooted deal to sign Luka Mo­dric looks un­likely to come to fruition, but the fact that In­ter dared to dream of such a move – and the player’s ap­par­ent in­ter­est – feels in­dica­tive of change. Whether be­cause of Ron­aldo’s ar­rival or merely as an ex­ten­sion of the trend that brought him to Turin, there is a sense of bullish­ness among Italy’s lead­ing clubs that has not al­ways been present.

In­trigu­ing young tal­ent

Roma, fresh from a Cham­pi­ons League semi-fi­nal, missed out on Mal­com, but still added a wealth of in­trigu­ing young tal­ent – from Ante Coric through to Justin Kluiv­ert. Euse­bio Di Francesco ap­pears to be gear­ing his team up to play in a more at­tack­ing way, with Javier Pa­s­tore and Bryan Cris­tante hardly sug­gest­ing cau­tion on ei­ther side of mid­field in a 4-3-3.

Even Mi­lan, af­ter a turbulent 12 months, look to be emerg­ing stronger. Ron­aldo’s ar­rival di­rectly ben­e­fited the Ros­soneri, paving the way for them to ac­quire Gon­zalo Higuaín and Mat­tia Cal­dara from Ju­ven­tus. Leonardo Bonucci went the other way but af­ter a dis­ap­point­ing year at San Siro few were sad to see him go. Cal­dara and Alessio Ro­mag­noli have the po­ten­tial to ma­ture into Italy’s start­ing cen­tre-back part­ner­ship for years to come.

Even more sig­nif­i­cant might be the re­turns of Leonardo and Paolo Mal­dini to the club in di­rec­tors’ roles, af­ter El­liott Man­age­ment took con­trol of the club. The pair’s com­bined ex­pe­ri­ence can only be a ben­e­fit, but there is a sym­bolic value too for a team who have seemed cut adrift from their more suc­cess­ful past.

Top-four spot

Lazio ought to chal­lenge for a top-four spot once again hav­ing thus far re­tained the core of the squad that missed out only on the fi­nal day last sea­son. Keep­ing hold of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic would be a far more im­por­tant piece of trans­fer busi­ness than any­thing else they could achieve.

There is plenty more in­trigue be­yond the fron­trun­ners. Can Parma, hav­ing suc­cess­fully ap­pealed against a five-point de­duc­tion for the prob­lem­atic What­sApp mes­sages their for­ward Emanuele Calaiò sent to op­po­nents late last sea­son, stay afloat on their re­turn to the top flight?

What of Em­poli, also newly pro­moted, who scored 88 goals in Serie B? Will a young Fiorentina team con­tinue to thrive un­der Ste­fano Pi­oli? Might Torino push for Europe af­ter qui­etly drop­ping close to ¤50 mil­lion in this sum­mer win­dow, adding much-needed re­in­force­ments in de­fence?

Two games of the open­ing week­end have been post­poned af­ter the Genoa bridge tragedy, but the sea­son will still kick off on Satur­day, when Ju­ven­tus travel to Chievo. Serie A be­gins with Ron­aldo, in other words. It could not have been any other way.

– Guardian

Carlo Ancelotti as Mau­r­izio Sarri’s re­place­ment will have a hard time sus­tain­ing mo­men­tum at Napoli

PHO­TO­GRAPH: MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

Ju­ven­tus lift the league tro­phy at the Al­lianz Sta­dium in Turin last May. It was Ju­ven­tus’ sventh suc­ces­sive Serie A ti­tle.

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