Juventus's decision to hand the coaching reigns to untried Andrea Pirlo promises to make this season's Serie A title race one of the most open in years with a queue of clubs waiting to pounce should the champion's remarkable gamble backfire.
The Turin side will be bidding for a 10th successive Serie A title this season, which kicks off on Saturday, but will do so under the leadership of a man who, for all his undoubted ability as a player, has never coached at the senior level before.
Pirlo, who makes his debut at home to Sampdoria on Sunday, only received his official badge on Wednesday after presenting his thesis at the Italian federation's coaching school in Florence and it remains to be seen how he will adapt to the new role.
“I'm the Juventus coach and its natural that anyone who comes here must win,” said Pirlo after a pre-season friendly against Novara. “I know I have to win, it was like that as a player and it will be like that as a coach,” he added.
There are further question marks over Juventus, including the way in which it staggered over the finish line last season, winning only two of its last eight matches, and its dependence on Cristiano Ronaldo.
While his record cannot be questioned, Ronaldo's presence demands that the team is built around him, leaving his coach short on tactical options as Pirlo's predecessor Maurizio Sarri found.
With Juventus in transition, Serie A has become arguably the most difficult of the major European leagues to predict -- not least because the transfer window does not close until October 5, two weeks after the opening fixtures.
Inter Milan, which finished one point behind Juve in second place last season, appears to be the most dangerous and obvious challenger to Juve's dominance if it can overcome the inconsistency which exasperated coach Antonio Conte last season.
- Ibrahimovic inspiration -
Inter's neighbour AC Milan is equally intriguing. After years of mid-table mediocrity, the seven-time European champion came to life in the second half of last season, partly inspired by the presence of 38-year-old forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Stefano Pioli, the side's experienced and amiable coach, seemed to have found the right blend of youth and experience -- something Milan has been chasing for years -- and the side was unbeaten in its last 13 matches of the season.
Yet most observers agree that none of those three played the best football last season. That honour belonged to Atalanta, which blasted 98 goals on its way to finishing third.
Although clubs of Atalanta's size often struggle to keep their team together after a successful season, the Bergamo-based team appears to have escaped that fate. Instead, the clob has consolidated its position after its Champions League debut last season.
Similarly, Lazio was outstanding for part of last season and led the table shortly before Serie A stopped due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March. The club's small squad struggled with the heavy fixture list after the break but it still finished fourth as forward Ciro Immobile equalled the Serie A scoring record for a single season with 36 goals. With a few reinforcements, it could launch another challenge this season.
Lazio's neighbour AS Roma, after exchanging one American owner for another following the takeover by the Texas-based Friedkin group, also finished strongly last season under Portuguese coach Paulo Fonseca.
Meanwhile, Napoli, which has been Juve's main challenger for the past decade, overcame a mid-season crisis and finished with a trophy after winning the Coppa Italia. With the feisty Gennaro Gattuso at the helm, it can certainly not be written off.
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