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Just Imagine

Italian Serie A 2008-2009 preview

  • Story Highlights
  • Jose Mourinho starts his first season in Italian football as coach of Inter Milan
  • The Portuguese is aiming to steer Inter to their fourth successive Scudetto
  • Roma, Juventus and Milan will be the nearest challengers to the champions
  • Chievo return to Serie A after just one season away from the Italian top flight
  • Next Article in World Sport »
By Greg Duke
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(CNN) -- The Champions

Not even a third successive Serie A title could prevent Roberto Mancini from losing his job as coach of champions Inter Milan.

Jose Mourinho will being his own unique brand of charisma and excitement to Serie A this season.

Even if one of those Scudetto's was achieved via the courtroom following the Italian match-fixing scandal, Mancini's dismissal could, on paper at least, seem surprisingly harsh.

However, it had been apparent for quite a while that all was not well at the club and quotes attributed to Mancini after their dismal Champions League defeat to Liverpool in March appeared to seal his fate, a full two months before the end of the season.

A late collapse, possibly brought on by the uncertainty surrounding the club, nearly saw Inter throw away a massive lead in the title race, eventually holding off challengers Roma by just three points.

Roma were again their main rivals in the Coppa Italia, but this time Luciano Spalletti's side reaped their revenge to retain that particular trophy in the final and further heighten the speculation regarding Mancini's future.

Once the decision was made to terminate Mancini's contract, the worse-kept secret in football became reality when 'The 'Special One' himself, Jose Mourinho, was handed the San Siro reins.

Mourinho expressed himself unhappy with the format of the Inter midfield and what better way to remedy that problem by pinching one of your principle rivals' best players-- in this case Roma's Brazilian winger Mancini -- thus ensuring that particular name will continue to play a part in Inter's immediate future.

Portsmouth's combative central midfielder Sulley Muntari has also been recruited to further strengthen an already impressive squad -- and Mourinho's reign has already began with some success, even if they needed penalties to beat old foes Roma in the Italian Super Cup.

The Challengers

Under the guidance of Luciano Spalletti, Roma have improved year-on-year and enter the new season as the likeliest contenders for Inter's Scudetto.

Such is Spalletti's rising star in European football, that he was mentioned in dispatches for the Chelsea job prior to Scolari's appointment and he has continued to improve his squad in preparation for another crack at the title.

The dead-ball expertise of new signing John-Arne Rise will compliment Brazilian Cicinho on the left, while veteran striker Vincenzo Montella returns, seven years after helping Roma win their last title.

The loss of winger Mancini to their principle rivals is a major blow, with the Brazilian's trickery and ball control a joy to watch. However, the player known as 'The Beast', Julio Baptista, brings with him more Brazilian magic -- even if the former Real Madrid player's prowess lies more in his physicallity than his silky skills.

Roma's strength continues to lie in midfield, with the Italian triumvirate of Alberto Aquilani, Daniele De Rossi and Simone Perrotta vital to their chances.

Roma failed in their continued attempts to sign Fiorentina striker Adrian Mutu but with both Julio Baptista and Mirko Vucinic coming in, their strikeforced has been strengthened further.

Times are hard for Milan at the moment, as their city rivals continue to call the shots domestically. A dismal fifth-placed finish, coupled with a Champions League humiliation at the hands of Arsenal, means Milan will not be dining at Europe's top table this season and further highlighted the need for younger legs in the famous red and black stripes.

Veteran Brazilian defenders Cafu and Serginho have been released, with Gianluca Zambrotta returning to Serie A from Barcelona to take over at right-back.

Mathieu Flamini's energy and enthusiasm will bolster a flagging midfield which was beginning to look past its self-by date, while the Ronaldinho or Adebayor race to the San Siro was won by the Brazilian, who will brighten up Serie A if he can recapture any of his former magic.

The return of Andriy Shevchenko from Chelsea in the final week of the transfer window is also a further boost, particularly if the Ukrainian striker can recapture past glories.

Coach Carlo Ancelotti appears to have a far more understanding boss than any of his Inter equivalents, although another qualification for the UEFA Cup instead of the Champions League will surely end his tenure in charge.

Juventus always looked booked for third place on their return to the top flight and coach Claudio Ranieri will now be looking for a further step up to challenge Inter.

His squad has a settled, if slightly old, look about it, with veterans Pavel Nedved, Mauro Camoranesi and Alessandro del Piero still playing a key role in proceedings.

Olof Mellberg and Cristian Poulsen will add some Scandinavian common-sense to the defense and midfield respectively, but the key signing is Brazilian striker Amauri, who arrives in Turin with high expectations after two goal-laden seasons with Palermo.

Point to prove

It seems almost inconceivable that Ronaldinho went from being universally regarded as the best player in the world, to an out-of-shape Barcelona reserve, in little more than two seasons.

Whatever the reasons for his fall from grace, the Brazilian maestro has been handed a second chance at AC Milan and he decided to take up the challenge of returning to former glories in Italy, rather than accept the greater salary that was dangled in front of him by cash-rich Premier League club Manchester City.

The hysteria that greeted Ronaldinho on his arrival in Milan indicates the RossoNeri diehards are happy to see him at their club and the prospects of the Three Amigos of Ronaldinho, Pato and Kaka performing in unison together is certainly a mouth-watering prospect.

New Boys

Three familiar names return to Serie A this season and all of them have a realistic chance of avoiding the drop from a division that does not automatically dump promoted clubs straight back to Serie B.

The Flying Donkeys of Chievo return as Serie B champions after an exile of just one season. Despite the shock of their last-day relegation from the top flight in 2006-07, Chievo regrouped under new coach Giuseppe Iachini.

Club captain Sergio Pellissier plundered 20-plus goals to help steer the Verona-based side to the title, but despite an experienced and well-drilled squad, the squad lacks depth at the moment.

Former giants Bologna return to the top flight after a three-year absence and look best equipped to have a decent season.

Former Chievo legend Massimo Marazzina scores bucket-loads of goals in Serie B but, at Cheivo aside, he has struggled to maintain that momentum in the top flight. A big season will be needed from him.

Coach Daniele Arrigoni achieved a real coup in signing former international defender Cristian Zenoni. The 31-year-old played for the Azzuri just two years ago and his arrival from Sampdoria will bring some much needed Serie A experience to the side.

Lecce are the third of the promoted teams, returning to the top flight after an absence of two seasons. They secured their place via the play-offs although they were clearly the team to beat, having finished the season in third place with 83 points -- 12 more than sixth-placed Pisa -- and boasting the best goal difference.

They will be reliant on highly-rated striker Simone Tiribocchi to plunder the goals for them, although his strike partner, Elvis Abbruscato, has returned to Torino, providing a blow to their survival hopes.

Hello

In Jose Mourinho's first press conference as Chelsea manager, the Portuguese proclaimed himself as 'The Special One' -- and the moniker stuck.

The British media lapped up every second of Mourinho's showmanship but his awkward relationship with Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich ultimately cost him his job in London.

Now the Italian media get to work with Mourinho's undoubted charisma, although that will surely change should Inter not pick up the results that owner Massimo Moratti and his board of directors demand.

Mourinho's track record indicates he will be a success at the San Siro, yet either way, 'The Special One' is sure to make a massive impact on Serie A this season.

Midfielder Mathieu Flamini chose to decline a new contract at Arsenal to test himself in Serie A, and the Gunners' loss is certainly Milan's gain as the gritty Frenchman is set to follow in the footsteps of Gennaro Gattuso as the heartbeat of the Rossoneri's engine room.

Not as spikey as Gattuso, but certainly as competitive, Flamini spent three seasons as a bit-part player in London before transforming himself in his final season, providing a perfect foil for the guile and vision of Cesc Fabregas.

Goodbye

After 11 successful seasons in Serie A with first Roma and then Milan, Brazilian legend Cafu has retired from competitive football at the age of 38.

A winner of two Scudetto's, one with each side, as well as the Champions League with Milan in 2007, the double World Cup winner thrilled supporters of both clubs in nearly 300 league matches.

Swapping shirts

Anybody who saw Mancini's goal for Roma against Lyon in the 2006-2007 Champions League will know exactly why Jose Mourinho made him his first signing as Inter Milan coach.

Mancini's dazzling footwork, performing five or six stepovers in quick succession to totally bamboozle defender Anthony Reveillere before slamming a fierce shot into the roof of the net, had football fans all over the world gasping in admiration.

It is the sort of magic that Mourinho is hoping will light up the San Siro, as well as putting a dent into the squad of his fiercest rivals.

However, Mancini's consistency has always been in question. A tally of just 12 Brazilian caps, and no goals, is a poor return for a player of his quality -- and he was never able to produce that high level of performance for Roma on a regular basis. It will be interesting to see whether the Mourinho factor has the desired effect.

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