Inter and Juve put faith in returning stars but youthful Milan feel upbeat

·6-min read

Can you win Serie A with reheated soup? The common Italian idiom holds that minestre riscaldate never tastes as good as you hope. Yet Internazionale and Juventus have been pulling Tupperware containers out of their freezers this summer, seeking the recipes that earned them titles before.

The Nerazzurri did not need to dig far. They finished only two points behind Milan last season and knew exactly which ingredient had been subtracted from a champion dish. Romelu Lukaku was Inter’s top scorer and leading assist provider in 2020-21. Securing his return on loan from Chelsea, less than 12 months after selling him for €115m, was a sensational coup.

Related: Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s incendiary feud with Lukaku set for a second act

He received a mixed welcome, with Ultras from the Curva Nord warning in a written statement that he could not be celebrated as the “king” he was before. The delirious crowds who arrived to greet him disagreed, as did the thousands who shared a video of him being crowned in front of San Siro in a viral edit of the Lord of the Rings movie, The Return of the King.

Will Lukaku smash Inter’s enemies a second time? His season at Chelsea was desperately disappointing, with eight goals in 25 Premier League appearances, but he returns to a team that still contains most of the pieces that allowed him to thrive before.

Inter still have Lautaro Martínez to accompany Lukaku up front, as well as Nicolò Barella and Marcelo Brozovic in midfield, now accompanied by Hakan Calhanoglu and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Ivan Perisic and Achraf Hakimi are gone from the flanks, but Denzel Dumfries grew into his role on the right last season, and Robin Gosens has shown his quality for Atalanta and Germany before.

The biggest difference is the manager. It was Antonio Conte who brought the best out of Lukaku two years ago. Simone Inzaghi did not reinvent the wheel after replacing him but has sought to make Inter more unpredictable, relying less on pre-rehearsed moves.

Lukaku had expressed enthusiasm for his approach last summer, before Chelsea arrived with an offer too big to ignore. Inter might be forced to make another reluctant sale at the end of this window, with reports that either Dumfries or Milan Skriniar might depart to balance the books, but for now optimism prevails.

The same might not be true at Juventus. Paul Pogba’s return ignited imaginations at first, reminding supporters of a time when their team won titles and played in European finals.

No one was kidding themselves that this would be the same player who left in 2016, but even in six frustrating years at Manchester United there had at least been flashes, chances created, moments to get you out of your seat. In the meantime Juventus’s midfield had become a footballing void, a place that moves go to die. The man whose role Pogba was expected to fill, Adrien Rabiot, produced two assists and no goals in 32 appearances last term.

At least the latter player, though, was reliably available. After missing 80 games over the past three seasons, could anyone at Juventus have been shocked when Pogba picked up a knee injury that is expected to keep him out for at least the first month of the new campaign?

The Bianconeri have made other additions. Ángel Di María will lend experience to the attack while Gleison Bremer is an excellent signing in defence, albeit with big shoes to fill after the departures of Giorgio Chiellini and Matthijs de Ligt. It will be intriguing to see how Filip Kostic fares in Serie A, a year after his proposed move to Lazio collapsed amid furious counter-claims about a misspelled email address.

It was Pogba, though, whose arrival was supposed to change the dynamic of this team the most, not least because of his close relationship he developed with the manager, Massimiliano Allegri. They used to stay after training during their previous stint together in Turin, challenging one another in shooting contests and games of basketball.

The gap to Milan was 16 points last time out, and the champions have strengthened. Where Inter and Juventus are reheating old soup, the Rossoneri returned from the market with something brand-new: the 21-year-old Charles De Ketelaere. A 6ft 4in No 10 with experience of playing out wide, he scored 14 goals for Club Brugge last season and has been billed as Belgium’s next big thing.

Milan’s new signing Charles De Ketelaere, pictured in a pre-season friendly against Vicenza.
Milan’s new signing Charles De Ketelaere, pictured in a pre-season friendly against Vicenza. Photograph: Giuseppe Cottini/Getty Images

Divock Origi and Yacine Adli offer further options up front. Questions remain about who will pick up the goalscoring slack if a 35-year-old Olivier Giroud fails to repeat last season’s knack of scoring in all the biggest games, but Milan feel confident above all because they have retained the core of a young squad who ought to continue improving under Stefano Pioli’s leadership.

Are there any other title contenders to consider? Napoli finished third in May but since then have bid farewell to their captain, Lorenzo Insigne, his deputy, Kalidou Koulibaly, and fan favourite Dries Mertens.

The mood around the club is toxic with continuous protests against the owner, Aurelio De Laurentiis. Napoli continue to be linked with Sassuolo’s Giacomo Raspadori and Verona’s Giovanni Simeone, and the new arrival Khvicha Kvaratskhelia has impressed in pre-season, but the hole left by Koulibaly, especially, will not easily be filled.

At the other end of the spectrum are Roma, for whom the glow of winning a European trophy is yet to fade. Almost 10,000 fans turned out for Paulo Dybala’s unveiling, and not even a comedically terrible corner could dampen their enthusiasm for seeing a former Serie A MVP integrated into an attack that already features Tammy Abraham, Lorenzo Pellegrini and Nicolò Zaniolo. Andrea Belotti may yet add further depth.

With Georginio Wijnaldum bolstering the midfield, is it unthinkable that Roma could emerge as dark horses for the Scudetto? A place in the top four, at least, must be a target. For that, they might also have competition from Fiorentina, who made strides to finish seventh under Vincenzo Italiano and aspire to take a step further by restoring Luka Jovic to the player he was.

Lazio and Atalanta have had low-key summers but will compete for Europe as well. Behind them, the likes of Sassuolo, Torino and Verona must work to reinvent themselves without Gianluca Scamacca, Bremer and Simeone (if, as expected, he leaves) respectively. Bologna hope to hold on to Marko Arnautovic after Manchester United’s interest cooled.

The relegation battle could be wide open, with two promoted clubs making intriguing moves. Cremonese scooped up Cyriel Dessers, 10-goal hero of Feyenoord’s run to the Conference League final, as well as David Okereke from Venezia.

More eye-catching still have been Monza’s moves, acquiring Matteo Pessina, Stefano Sensi, Andrea Petagna and Gianluca Caprari, as well as a new defence – Marlon Santos, Andrea Ranocchia and Andrea Carboni – made up of players with top-level experience. The Biancorossi were in Serie D as recently as 2017.

They are owned by Silvio Berlusconi, and the vice-president is Adriano Galliani, a partnership that led Milan to 29 trophies in 31 years. They cannot afford the same quality of ingredients that they once did, but the fascination to see what they cook up remains all the same.