Italian giants Juventus are no longer the firm favourites to march towards a 10th consecutive Serie A title with Inter Milan having closed the gap.
Juventus took a risk by appointing rookie Andrea Pirlo as their new manager to replace Maurizio Sarri after underwhelming last season – getting knocked out of the Champions League at the last-16 stage.
As well as Inter, the likes of Lazio and Atalanta will argue their case to battle it out for the Serie A crown as players from Italy’s top clubs look to stake their claim for a spot in the national team under Roberto Mancini.
Here, Sportsmail takes a look at the task awaiting Pirlo as they prepare for their Serie A opener on Sunday against Sampdoria, and who exactly will rival Juventus for the title….
Andrea Pirlo’s first Serie A game in charge of Juventus is against Sampdoria on Sunday night
THE PRESSURE FACING PIRLO IMMEDIATELY
Juventus also chose Pirlo as manager because his £1.6million salary per year was the lowest among other names linked to the job at the Allianz Stadium following Sarri’s dismissal.
Zinedine Zidane and Mauricio Pochettino were favourites but their requests of £8.2m per year scared off a club, who decided to take the internal path that consists of a fascinating and technical project.
Pirlo recently graduated with his coaching badges just six days before the Sampdoria clash, having a very broad philosophy based on ‘proactive, possession and attacking football’ – in which he obtained a score of 107/110, ranking second among the coaches.
From his thesis emerged a desire to inspire his new Juventus side to replicate Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona and above all, Louis Van Gaal’s Ajax side. In the 30 pages of his coaching philosophy, Pirlo also mentioned Antonio Conte’s Juventus outfit – his first team with the Italian midfielder on the pitch.
During Pirlo’s first few days as Juventus manager, Danilo commented to Tuttosport: ‘He trained with us, he communicates very well with the team and with every player of the club.’
This was a key missing ingredient from Sarri’s time at the club but it may not be enough to lead Juventus to a remarkable 10th consecutive Serie A title.
Pirlo has very little experience at the top level of management and may have problems containing his emotions in his first season. Furthermore, he will have to try and overcome the skepticism of his more experienced Juventus colleagues.
Talking to Gazzetta dello Sport, Van Gaal expressed his doubts about Pirlo as a manager: ‘In Holland they say: ‘If you are a good horse, you are not a good jockey’. I doubt his qualities as a coach because he has never coached and has learned everything he knows as a footballer.
‘Andrea Pirlo was the best in his role as a player, but I don’t know what his coaching career will be like. There are few good players who have become excellent technicians also because unfortunately in Latin culture, the common spirit often fades into the background and is not considered.’
There will be pressure on Pirlo to deliver from the off for the Italian giants this campaign
INTER MILAN CAN STOP JUVE’S DOMINANCE
Antonio Conte, despite enduring a tough debut campaign, is the right coach to break Juventus’ nine-year dominance in the Italian top-flight.
Juventus’ real rival this coming season will be Inter, who are on the brink of signing Arturo Vidal and dream of bringing N’Golo Kante to the San Siro.
The former Chelsea manager will not change his tactics and will start the season with his trusted 3-5-2 formation, with the only difference being Achraf Hakimi at right back.
Inter will have plenty of experience, which will be a fundamental weapon in their pursuit of the Scudetto.
Both Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez will be key once again for Conte’s side while Alessandro Bastoni will get increasing chances to play in the heart of defence after replacing Diego Godin in the space of 12 months. They had the best defensive record in the league last season.
Inter Milan under Antonio Conte will be a real force this season with Romelu Lukaku up top
ATALANTA WILL FIND IT TOUGH TO REPLICATE THEIR FORM
It will be difficult for Atalanta, coached by Gian Piero Gasperini, to repeat their extraordinary 2019-20 form, which saw them reach the Champions League quarter-finals.
Atalanta forward Alejandro Darío Gomez isn’t getting any younger while Josip Ilicic will be going through rehabilitation after returning to Slovenia to overcome his battle with depression.
Furthermore, Gazzetta dello Sport report that Atalanta will have to solve the Aleksei Miranchuk problem. The club will not want to take any risks over his return to the pitch after suffering with muscle discomfort when he was playing for Lokomotiv Moscow.
Miranchuk arrived to the club injured but Atalanta and Gasperini believe he can return to fitness in a month.
Atalanta exceeded expectations last season, reaching the Champions League quarter-finals
LAZIO WILL SETTLE FOR A CHAMPIONS LEAGUE SPOT
Lazio acquired the services of Vedat Muriqi from Fenerbahce this summer, become president Claudio Lotito’s most expensive signing over the last five years. However, there are still question marks over how the Kosovo striker will fare in Italy.
Lazio are currently not among the favourites to win the Serie A crown and they will instead continue to fight for a place in the Champions League.
The presence of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto will be a big advantage for Lazio but they still need to dip into the transfer window.
With their current squad, Lazio still appear to be behind the rest of the contenders for the Serie A title.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto will be key for Lazio this season in Italian top-flight
WHAT CAN WE EXPECT FROM PIRLO’S SIDE IN HIS FIRST MATCH?
Pirlo will have a team with an engine, with three certainties in his side: Wojciech Szczesny, Leonardo Bonucci and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Pirlo has already let it be known that he will start with a 3-5-2 formation, with Juan Cuadrado and Alex Sandro on the wings while Adrien Rabiot, Arthur Melo and Aaron Ramsey will sit in the middle of the park.
According to Tuttosport, Rodrigo Bentancur has a slight knock and will start the match against Sampdoria on the bench.
Prior to the complete recovery of Matthijs de Ligt, who will only be available again from the end of October, Pirlo will line up with experienced duo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini while he will opt for either Merih Demiral or Danilo on the right-hand side of the three centre backs.
Finally in attack, there are only two options, Ronaldo and Dejan Kulusevski, because Paulo Dybala – who starred last season – is recovering from a muscle problem.
Pirlo will be counting on Cristiano Ronaldo to provide the spark once again for Juventus
KULUSEVSKI CAN GIVE JUVE A BOOST
Pirlo has already made it known that he will count on Dejan Kulusevski this season after Juventus fended off interest for his signature in a £39m deal in January.
The 20-year-old Swedish winger is among one of the most exciting talents around – he provided 11 assists in Serie A last season for Parma to become the player with the most assists in Europe under the age of 20.
While playing for Parma, he amazed everyone with his strength and speed. At Juventus, he will be a revelation for Pirlo and can be used in any formation, such as 3-5-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3.
Dejan Kulusevski is an exciting talent that rookie boss Pirlo and Juventus have on their hands
CANNAVARO BACKS PIRLO
Fabio Cannavaro, a former centre back for both Juventus and Real Madrid, recently gave an interview to Il Mattino, talking about the club’s chances of winning Serie A with Pirlo at the helm.
Cannavaro said: ‘He can give his serenity but he must understand that he must not exaggerate.
‘Pirlo has great luck and must not underestimate it: he is in a strong team where even if he makes a mistake, there will be someone who will be able to fix his mistake.
‘This is no small advantage for a young and inexperienced manager. Juventus have something more than the others but Inter have strengthened a lot. ‘
Fabio Cannavaro has given his opinion on how Pirlo will fare during his debut managerial term