More than €1 billion worth of fresh faces could take to the field this weekend when the 2019/20 Serie A kicks off.
The summer mercato (transfer market) has been a strong one for Italian clubs. Juventus’ emergence from a crowded pack to land coveted Ajax centre-back Matthijs de Ligt is the obvious highlight.
Bought from (fee): Free transfer
First, let’s get an unfortunate fact out of the way.
A suspension carried over from the tempestuous end of his short Marseille attachment means that Balotelli’s homecoming to promoted Brescia will be delayed until well into next month.
But such is the fanfare that surrounds Super Mario, only those of cold heart and dimmed imagination cannot be galvanised about the enticing prospect of what could come.
An unfulfilled search for meaning has, seemingly, defined Balotelli’s mercurial career.
This gifted attacker has flittered through both Milan clubs, Manchester City, Liverpool and the Cote d’Azur’s Nice and Marseille. Indelible impressions were often only left off the pitch, rather than on it.
Brescia offers a welcome anchoring point. It is the city in which he was raised by adoptive parents and gained a broad northern accent.
Will we see the one-goal dud from the 29-year-old’s last stint in Serie A four years ago at AC Milan, or the striker who subsequently netted 41 times in 73 Ligue 1 outings? As always, finding out provides essential viewing.
Club: AC Milan
Bought from (fee): Empoli (€16m)
Position: Centre midfield
Another season and another new dawn for AC Milan.
Marco Giampaolo is the latest incumbent at the helm of a club that CEO Ivan Gazidis poetically declared to Gazzetta dello Sport will not repeat the “illusions and lies” about instant success promised by previous regimes.
This is where the impressive Bennacer comes into play. The ex-Sampdoria man is tactically wedded to a 4-3-1-2 formation, in which an elite regista (deep-lying playmaker) is fundamental.
The 21-year-old’s 312 ball recoveries was the most in Serie A last season and he sat third for most possessions won with 174. The Player of the Tournament from Algeria’s 2019 Africa Cup of Nations triumph is, however, no mere destroyer.
A division-leading 77.7-per-cent success rate among players who attempted 50 or more dribbles was also registered.
Club: Inter Milan
Bought from (fee): Hertha Berlin (€22m)
Position: Right winger/wing-back
Inter’s summer was dominated by a lengthy – and ultimately successful – pursuit of Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku.
This distraction ensured other promising business went under the radar. Ignorance that is exacerbated in Lazaro’s case by a nagging thigh injury that dogged pre-season.
Once he is fully fit and veteran Antonio Candreva is back on the substitutes’ bench, however, his profile is guaranteed to grow. It was no mistake that one of the first acts of new head coach Antonio Conte’s reign was to land the multi-faceted Austria international.
Wing-backs capable of making an impression in both halves are crucial in the ex-Juventus supremo’s trademark 3-4-3/3-5-2 formations.
Only three Bundesliga midfielders produced more assists than Lazaro’s 11 since November 2017. Defensive duties were not ignored at Hertha, where in 2018/19 he was in their top 10 tacklers (1.5) and clearance makers (1.7) per match.
Bought from (fee): Sint-Truiden (€9m)
The unflappable Tomiyasu’s breakthrough 2019 has exhibited no sign of abating.
A return to Japan’s fold in January witnessed the 20-year-old emerge, comfortably, as the Asian Cup’s most-accomplished defender. Further solid form when minnows Sint-Truiden finished seventh in Belgium’s Jupiler Pro League was reinforced by a Copa America from which not even a cruel handball versus Colombia could diminish his notable impact.
The subsequent move to Bologna has brought Tomiyasu into contact with Sinisa Mihajlovic, an accomplished defender from his playing days. Early impressions have clearly been positive, judging by the call to start the new boy – at right-back – in this week’s 3-0 walkover of Pisa in the Coppa Italia’s third round.
Tomiyasu’s physicality is matched by a refinement in possession shared by few. This is a prospect who could blossom in the coming months.
Ah, the summer. It can be the best and worst time to be a football fan. For those who can’t stomach three months without seriously meaningful games to others who despise the constant scheming, planning, rumour-mongering that is the incessant transfer market.
And yet, there’s something so captivating when your club signs a new player – be it someone the manager has coveted for a while, a surprise coup who has been stolen away from under the nose of a rival or an up-and-coming talent.
Of course, that excitement can rise or decline depending on how well the player performs in the ensuing season and how much money is forked over.
When you shell out a lot of money on a player, you expect a return. But as you can see below, it doesn’t always work out that way.
In the latest of our series, we take a look at the 10 most expensive Serie A signings in each of the last 10 summers, and deliver a verdict on whether they’ve flourished or flopped.
CRISTIANO RONALDO (Real Madrid to Juventus)
You may well remember this fella – he’s not half bad – from our earlier look at La Liga, where he was a sure fire hit. It’s been much the same since his switch to Serie A 12 months ago, even if he hasn’t delivered the one thing he was transferred to Turin for – to bring the Bianconeri the Champions League trophy.
But Cristiano Ronaldo has still done what Cristiano Ronaldo inevitably does – plunder goals, win his side silverware and, ultimately, hog all the limelight. Mainly because, well, he’s just that good.
He hasn’t found defences in Italy quite as hospitable as Spain, enduring his lowest goalscoring tally since his final season at Manchester United (26 from 53 in 2008/09) but 28 goals in 43 appearances is still stunning. They helped Juve seal an eighth-straight Scudetto as well as lift the Supercoppa Italiana. He even threw in the inaugural UEFA Nations League crown with Portugal to boot too.
LEONARDO BONUCCI (Juventus to AC Milan)
An odd mismatch that was quickly corrected after a season as Bonucci returned to his beloved Bianconeri.
The only problem is that his time away seemed to alert Juve to the fact they required a defensive reshuffle. Rising Dutch talent Matthijs de Ligt was signed from Ajax this summer and he was brought to partner Giorgio Chiellini, not Bonucci.
The former midfielder turned ball-playing centre-back has been the bedrock of Juve’s gluttony of success over the last decade. A tall, mobile, strong defender, known for his technique and fine passing range, but there’s no doubt the Milan move hurt his stock. Though the Rossoneri had long since been stuck in the doldrums, Bonucci’s addition failed to improve their defence as they conceded the most league goals (64) since 2012/13 and finished a sub-par sixth.
Back at Juve, his misinformed claim that now former team-mate Moise Kean shared the blame for monkey chants aimed at him last season were also distasteful.
GONZALO HIGUAIN (Napoli to Juventus)
This is a borderline call because the Argentine maintained the lethality he’d harnessed during three years in Naples in his first two terms in Turin. Thirty two goals in 55 outings following his summer 2016 defection is his second highest tally in a 16-year senior career, inferior only to his 38 in 42 during 2015/16. Okay, so he dropped off somewhat in 2017/18 (23 in 50) but Higuain was still hitting the back of the net at a rate of essentially a goal every other game.
The acid test though was his alarming drop off last year. Two summers after parting with €90 million for a 28-year-old who doesn’t appear to be the greatest professional in terms of keeping himself in shape, Juve appeared more than happy to move their most hefty transfer (price tag, not weight, although…) off the wage bill.
Two pitiful loans, first to AC Milan (8 in 22) and then Chelsea (5 in 18), ensued, with neither side keen to keep hold of him. Back with the Bianconeri, but with Ronaldo now the spearhead, there doesn’t appear to be room (again, not a fat joke) for a blunted Higuain.
PAULO DYBALA (Palermo to Juventus)
Another man who there doesn’t appear room for at Allianz Stadium is Paulo Dybala, and this has nothing to do with weight or fitness concerns. In fact, it’s more concerning that Juve seem so determined to rid themselves of such an innately talented player.
Offered to Manchester United in exchange for Romelu Lukaku (what’s Juve’s obsession with cumbersome strikers?) earlier this summer, the latest sensational rumour is that he could be part of three-way exchange sending him to Paris Saint-Germain, Neymar to Barcelona and Luis Suarez to Turin.
Although he is yet to truly breakout into a superstar in his own right, Dybala has shown enough dynamism to suggest world-class status isn’t too far away – but it’s hard when you’re operating from the shadows. Dybala has had to share playing time with Alvaro Morata, Juan Cuadrado and Mario Mandzukic since his arrival, not to mention play second fiddle to Higuain and now the biggest shadow caster of them all.
Still, a return of 78 goals in 182 is handsome and a haul of 26 in 46 two seasons ago was particularly impressive.
JUAN ITURBE (Verona to Roma)
Argentines (Iturbe was born there but has actually represented Paraguay, his parents’ country of origin, eight times) aren’t having much luck on this list are they? But whereas Higuain’s move to Juve will put people on the fence and Dybala has been under-utilised, Iturbe’s switch to Roma was simply a case of a gap too big to bridge.
The forward had already trod a nomadic path before pitching up at Roma in the summer of 2014, aged only 21, having played for five different clubs. After just five goals in 68 games for the Eternal City giants, Iturbe has been eternally cast aside each season since – spending unfulfilling stints at random places such as Bournemouth, Torino and Mexican clubs Tijuana and Pumas.
A paltry sum of six goals from 53 appearances have been returned. His deal up this summer, Iturbe – once dubbed the “new Lionel Messi” – is currently a free agent.
GONZALO HIGUAIN (Real Madrid to Napoli)
We’re all out of rotund jokes, we promise. Besides, there was nothing funny about Higuain’s blisteringly good form for Napoli from 2013-16 if you were a Serie A defender.
What was all the more remarkable about the Argentine’s rise was how much of a failure he was considered at Real. Failure is maybe harsh but he was never able to emerge from the shadow of Raul, Ronaldo and Karim Benzema – despite a stellar goal output. A total of 121 goals in 264 games, 107 strikes in 190 La Liga outings.
Out of the dazzling white shirt, Higuain shone in the bright blue of Napoli – 71 league goals followed in 104 games (91 in 146 overall) as he and the Partenopei thrived under first Rafael Benitez and then Maurizio Sarri.
The Brest-born striker fired them to Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Italiana glory, while his stunning tally of 38 goals in 42 games under Sarri during 2015/16 was the joint highest in club history for a campaign.
It didn’t go unnoticed as Juve came calling.
KWADWO ASAMOAH (Udinese to Juventus)
A dynamic, industrious, energetic and tactically intelligent player, Asamoah had long been a versatile and often vital component of successful Juve squads before his switch to Inter Milan last summer.
The Ghana midfielder featured more often than not at left-back, wing-back or left wing but adapted seamlessly thanks to his power and pace, and was part of six Scudetto-winning sides, as well as lifting four Coppa Italia trophies.
A bad knee injury in November 2014 ended his third season with the following campaign also curtailed due to injury. After that his playing time was limited, with just 18 and 19 Serie A games played over the ensuing two terms.
Juve were keen to extend the utility man’s deal last summer but rather than sit and count the success from the bench, Asamoah chose to move on to Milan. His 42 appearances in 2018/19 were the second most in his 11-year career in Italy.
ZLATAN IBRAHIMOVIC (Barcelona to AC Milan)
The man is a star wherever he goes – except as it turned out in Catalonia, where Lionel Messi shines brighter than all others and he spectacularly fell out with Pep Guardiola.
“As a coach, he was fantastic. As a person, I’ve no comments about that, that’s something else. He’s not a man, there’s nothing more to say,” Ibrahimovic has said of Guardiola. He was expected to be the final piece in Pep’s perfect Blaugrana-coloured puzzle, but instead he left after one season.
After a torrid time at the Camp Nou though, the man who calls himself the lion roared for the Rossoneri. The Swede was an instant hit, bagging 21 goals in 41 games on loan in 2010/11 as Milan lifted the title – their 18th and tellingly the last time the Scudetto wasn’t seized by Juve.
A year later he topped the individual if not the collective charts with 28 league goals, scoring 35 in all – a tally only bettered twice in two of his four years caning Ligue 1’s farmers.
ROBINHO (Manchester City to AC Milan)
Tongues were set wagging when the Brazilian was prised away from Real Madrid on the final day of the 2008 summer transfer window – the first of what have now become many galactico-style statement signings by Manchester City over the last decade.
But, all that glitters is not gold as they say. And Robinho’s shimmer soon faded, as did he. After a decent maiden season in Manchester his slide into mediocrity began. His first two seasons following the Milan move were solid enough – he scored 15 goals in 45 games as the Rossoneri won their 18th Scudetto in 2010/11.
Paltry returns of two and five goals in 2012/13 and 2013/14 though was the beginning of the end for Robinho.
DIEGO (Werder Bremen to Juventus)
Who? Juventus fans were probably asking the same thing in the summer of 2009 when the Brazilian was bought for a big fee after several years starring in the Bundesliga for Bremen.
A tally of 54 goals in 132 games for Die Grun-Weisen (the Green-Whites) might have had fans dreaming of Diego embarking on a purple patch in Turin – but it never materialised.
An inauspicious seven strikes followed in 44 games and he notably fell out with boss Ciro Ferrara over formation while fans never took to him.
Like Higuain and Ronaldo he also makes more than one appearance in this series. He also proved a flop – not to mention a nuisance – a year later when he returned to the Bundesliga with Wolfsburg.
Italy striker Mario Balotelli said it was his late father’s dream to see him play for Brescia after he was presented as a new signing at his hometown club on Monday.
Balotelli added that his mother cried when he told her he was joining – as he returns to Serie A after a three-year absence.
The forward was born in Palermo but moved to Brescia at the age of two, and his adoptive family still live there although his father died in 2015.
Balotelli joined Brescia on a free transfer after his contract with Marseille expired.
His last spell in Italy saw him struggling with injury in a season-long loan at AC Milan before returning to Liverpool in 2016 and moving immediately to France, resurrecting his career with Nice and then at Marseille.
Hear from the 29-year-old in the clip above