Frank de Boer is a hard-bitten stalwart of modern football, having tasted most of the glorious highs and bitter disappointment to be expected across a playing and coaching career operating near the pinnacle of European football.
Nevertheless, the former Ajax and Netherlands defender gave off a whiff of wide-eyed, naïve idealism when Inter brought shambolic pre-season preparations into the home straight by unveiling him as Roberto Mancini’s successor.
“No team is unbeatable, sometimes things can change,” the newly installed head coach told a welcome news conference.
“Juventus have a brilliant team with great individuals and it will be hard to beat them, but it’s not impossible. Our target is to be closer to them than last season and fight to make life hard for them.”
De Boer’s Serie A counterparts might have been expected to break away from training and tactical preparations to roll their eyes and exchange knowing text messages. Once upon a time, as recently as a year ago, many of them clung confidently to similar hopes.
After losing the 2015 Champions League final to Barcelona, Juventus lost Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo and Carlos Tevez and began their quest for a fifth consecutive Serie A title in the limp fashion that you might expect from a team that recently had a good portion of its spine removed.
After winning just three of their opening 10 matches, Massimiliano Allegri’s men churned out 15 victories in succession. Astonishingly, outside of that stuttering start they dropped only five more points for the remainder of the season.
The fact they more or less stopped conceding goals entirely helped – Gianluigi Buffon and the grizzled lieutenants in front of him set a Serie A record of 10 consecutive clean sheets, while Paulo Dybala established himself as a goalscoring force at the other end of the pitch.
This was an awesome winning machine. Even so, the feeling lingered that Napoli, Roma, Inter, Fiorentina and the rest had let Juve off a hook they placed themselves upon.
Losing Paul Pogba to Manchester United might have provided encouragement to Juventus’s two closest rivals from last season if it wasn’t for the fact Napoli and Roma have also each sold their best player. To Juventus.
Roma losing Miralem Pjanic and Napoli being without Gonzalo Higuain – irrespective of how well the Capocannoniere record-breaker has lunched over Italy’s summer months – is likely to damage each as much as Pogba’s departure will hurt Juventus, especially given the Turin giants are direct beneficiaries.
Even if De Boer is correct in his assertion that Juve have not become significantly stronger – new arrivals Dani Alves, Medhi Benatia and Marko Pjaca may beg to differ – it is hard to argue the pretenders to their thrown have managed to do so.
Napoli should be steeled by the experience of tussling in the upper reaches last season and they need only look to their impressive progress on the back of selling Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi to see there is life after Higuain, as Arkadiusz Milik will seek to prove after signing from Ajax. However, failing to hang on to coveted centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly and attacking midfielder Lorenzo Insigne would be harder still to absorb.
Roma still have the depth of talent most comparable to Juventus on paper and the challenge for Luciano Spalletti is to piece together a sustained challenge, without enduring one of those draw-specialists streaks that so undermined Rudi Garcia’s tenure.
In Milan, Inter have outstripped their city rivals in terms of getting Chinese takeovers through in time to make significant progress on squad building and, even if upheaval in this area is chiefly responsible for thrusting De Boer into a spotlight he appears to relish, the acquisitions of Ever Banega and Antonio Candreva should make them an entertaining watch as Geoffrey Kondogbia and Croatia’s Euro 2016 star Ivan Perisic continue to grow in stature.
Fiorentina have avoided major upheaval and could be more ready to capitalise on opening-day uncertainty at Juventus than the “I *heart* beer” t-shirt Christian Tello wore for his medical would suggest.
If Paulo Sousa’s men or anyone else can stop one of Europe’s grandest old leagues becoming a procession once more, that would be cause for Tello and everyone else to raise a glass.
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