Juventus are favourite to win Serie A again but there are reasons to doubt them
The mind games began at the end of May. Not from a pretender to the Juventus throne, but from Maurizio Sarri's predecessor.
Sarri had yet to be announced as the Old Lady's new coach back then but Massimiliano Allegri seemed to have a very good idea of who the club were lining up as his replacement. In his goodbye press conference, he once again stoked up the debate that had raged throughout the final two years of his tenure.
Does how you win matter? Last time he checked Juve's motto, he didn't think so. It claims "winning is the only thing that counts" and Allegri is a born winner. In coaching, guys like him are few and far between. As he sees it, you either got it or you don't. Winning is not something you learn.
"I could give you an example," he said, "but if I do, I'd bring the house down." Some in the room thought Allegri meant Sarri who, at the time, had lifted only one trophy his whole career: the Serie D Coppa Italia.
In his final TV interview before heading off on his holidays, Allegri did what he often does, downplaying his own role in Juventus' success while championing the work of the club and its players. He dismissed the idea that his successor has a big job on his hands to maintain the standards he set. "It's a winning team," Allegri said. "It's a team that has got what it takes to keep winning. It's a team that's way better than the rest and has a 90 percent chance of winning [the league] again."
Innocent and nonchalant in his delivery, Allegri would never have said such a thing in the event he were staying. It was, perhaps, a subtle way of applying some pressure on his successor.
While many still make Juventus favourites for the Scudetto, which would be their ninth straight if successful, they do seem less of a sure thing than usual.
For a start, Sarri's appointment is the most left-field since that of Gigi Maifredi in 1990. Sure, the circumstances are different. Sarri is undoubtedly better prepared and more experienced than Maifredi was then. Juventus, as a club, are united behind him and he's taking over a winning team. Make no mistake: if Sarri can get his ideas across and make a group of players this talented play in the style he implemented so successfully at Napoli, then we could be about to see the best Juventus of all-time.
But doubts remain.
Are the goalkeepers as comfortable on the ball as he needs them to be? Is a defence used to defending man-to-man, backing off and defending its own penalty area prepared to go zonal and step up, playing with wide open spaces behind it? And what of the attack?
One of the challenges Sarri faced when attempting to impose his style at Chelsea in England was the tentativeness or unwillingness to play quick combinations. Midfielders needed too many touches. Wingers held onto the ball too long, stopping and starting, allowing opposition defences to regroup and re-organise.
On Juve's preseason tour, Sarri spoke about the re-education process for his new squad and how he needs time to change the habits of players who've worked under different coaches with different ideas for such a long time. His biggest challenge might be the players' muscle memory. Sarri must convince Giorgio Chiellini, 35, and Cristiano Ronaldo, 34, to play another way. In fact, during the Asia leg of Juve's preseason, he described his job as organising 10 players around CR7.
Sarri is the one who will have to adapt to the winner of multiple Ballons d'Or, and to Juventus. It's not going to be the other way round. And so, a coach used to relying on a contingent of 13-14 players now has to keep a squad of superstars happy, something Allegri made look easy, and the club hasn't helped Sarri in this regard.
For a start, Juventus have tried to offload a number of big names without success. Gonzalo Higuain has been returned to sender, to say nothing of forgotten man, Marko Pjaca. The Bianconeri tried to sell Paulo Dybala not once, but twice, and the Argentine is still bizarrely up for sale. Mario Mandzukic and Sami Khedira, who signed new deals last season, know they are on the market. As it stands, Juventus are going to have some very tough decisions to make when it comes to deciding who doesn't make the cut for their 23-man Champions League squad.
We will have to see whether the club's efforts to ease the strain on the payroll and recalibrate the wage-to-turnover ratio -- the European transfer window closes on September 2 -- have in turn caused friction elsewhere. Juve's no drama togetherness has underpinned their success over the past nine years. A happy camp could potentially be compromised although saying that, one might counter that Higuain and Dybala aren't the ones inconvenienced; the club is. Unfortunately for the balance sheet, they don't want to be anywhere else.
Juventus' appeal is higher than it's ever been this century. Testament to that is Matthijs de Ligt's decision to join from Ajax when he pretty much had his pick of Europe's elite and in that context, the scepticism and reservations surrounding Juventus are hard to square. Projection plays a part here. After eight consecutive league titles, there is an element of "Juve fatigue" among neutrals and fans of other Italian clubs. But it's also a reflection of the increased competitiveness of the league and the indications this year are that Juventus have less margin for error, not that they make many mistakes.
In my opinion, three teams have a realistic shot at winning the title.
Inter have to be taken seriously not just because they have strengthened across the board, but, to follow Allegri's logic, on the basis that they have a born winner at the helm in Antonio Conte. Much more is expected of Napoli in Carlo Ancelotti's second year, too, and rightly so now that Kostas Manolas is partnering Kalidou Koulibaly in defence.
Standards are rising across the league, too. Roma have appointed the impressive Paulo Fonseca to manage a flawed, but fixable, squad. Milan have tailor-made their team for Marco Giampaolo, while Atalanta and Torino have retained what made them great last year. Lazio look capable of making it rain goals like they did two years ago.
Tax breaks have enabled Brescia to bring Mario Balotelli home and Fiorentina to give Franck Ribery a swansong. Cagliari have assembled an ambitious team, including the returning Radja Nainggolan, for their centenary season. Bologna have invested roughly €60m in players like successful loanees Riccardo Orsolini and Nicola Sansone, hoping to pick up where they left off under Sinisa Mihajlovic, who is continuing to coach the team while undergoing treatment for leukaemia. Genoa look like they could be very exciting with Aurelio Andreazzoli in charge.
The number of clubs hiring coaches who set out to dominate opponents and win games rather than sit back and aim not to get beat is encouraging as Serie A continues along a progressive, expansive path.
For Juventus, it doesn't look like it's going to be another procession this year. Still, with Sarri the hope is that it's the beginning of a process to something bigger and better than what went before. Allegri isn't the only one curious to see whether that's possible or not.