Serie A: See Naples and get beaten

ANOTHER victory for Napoli, their 17th in 20 Serie A games, has more or less handed the scudetto to Gli Azzurri so much so that even José Mourinho, hardly a defeatist, has congratulated the club on being champions. This is almost unprecedented for only 20 games have been played this season and there are still 18 to go. But 13 points is a substantial cushion for Napoli,  and althoughcan still go wrong, it is increasingly looking as though the residents of the Napoli cemeteries are going to woken from their slumbers for the first time since 1990.

There’s no denying Napoli are just about the most compelling team to watch these days, playing attack-minded football that has yielded 48 goals so far. They are also the only team to maintain consistency – just look at AC Milan, the reigning champions, and their recent form – losing heavily at home to Sassuolo and getting a thrashing from Lazio after they ridiculously travelled to Riyadh for the Super Cup, won by neighbours Inter.

Inter Milan themselves have been careless at times and were recently beaten 1-0 at home to Empoli. They bounced back with victory at Cremonese, but they are not the Inter of two years ago. They have lost too many games and may need some defensive reinforcements. They are, apparently, interested in Manchester United’s Harry Maguire and/or Victor Lindelof.

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It has been a strange season in Italy, though. The nation said farewell to a football legend in Gianluca Vialli and the national team was absent from their second successive World Cup in November/December. Sampdoria, the club where Vialli won the scudetto in 1991, are in serious financial trouble and could be facing bankruptcy. They are also struggling at the foot of Serie A, along with Hellas Verona and Cremonese.

Furthermore, scandal has reared its ugly head once more in Italy, with Juventus suffering a 15-point penalty and it could possibly get worse. But crowds seem to be in the ascendancy with an average of 28,400 overall and 72,000-plus attendances at both Milan clubs and over 60,000 at Roma. Napoli are getting almost 41,000 at their home games. If the Juve issue snowballs, will that affect public appetite for football?

Italian clubs have performed reasonably well in Europe in 2022-23. Of the four Serie A sides in the Champions League, only Juventus failed to win through to the knockout stage, losing five of their six group fixtures. They will face Nantes in the Europa League, alongside Roma, who have been drawn against RB Salzburg. The Champions League sees Inter versus Porto, AC Milan against Tottenham and Napoli playing Frankfurt. With the fine form of Napoli in the competition so far – 20 goals in six games and five wins – could the southern Italians be possible contenders for the most prestigious trophy in European football? Lazio and Fiorentina are in the last 16 of the Europa Conference League and will play FR Cluj and Braga respectively.

Napoli have been relentless since the first week of the campaign, and after beating Juventus 5-1, earned superlative headlines such as “the Napoli hurricane”. Their firepower comes from Victor Osimhen, who has netted 14 goals so far and is the front-runner for the Capocannoniere award for the Serie A top scorer. Osimhen has been in remarkable form and at 24, is undoubtedly on the shopping list of a lot of clubs. He’s valued at € 84 million by Football Benchmark, but he would surely go for closer to € 100 million should Napoli decide to let the Nigerian move on. He’s under contract until June 2025. Napoli’s other star man at present is the 21 year-old Georgian midfielder, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, who has contributed more assists than any other player in Serie A this season.

The Juventus domination of the past decade is definitely at an end. If Napoli win the title, it will be the fourth different champion in a row. That has to be good for Italian football, indeed the European game.

AS Roma need to grab the chance, despite their financial limits

WHEN José Mourinho joined Roma, it looked like a statement of intent, a sign that the giallorossi were eager to become genuine contenders. They might not have been getting Mourinho circa 2004, but any club that aspires to win trophies is attracted by his track record. 

Roma’s 6-1 defeat in Norway in the Europa Conference League was a shocker for their fans and the Italian football community, Mourinho teams don’t lose like that and even with a weakened team, there was no way that should have happened. Roma should still qualify for the latter stages of the Conference League despite that humbling against Bodo/Glimt, but the Mourinho image was a little damaged by such a setback.

If that result was embarrassing for Roma and their coach, then the club’s financial condition is also a worry, despite the new ownership of the Friedkin Group. Roma lost € 185 million in the 2020-21 season, which continued the negative financial impact of the pandemic on Italy’s Serie A. Roma may also face sanctions in connection with breaches of Financial Fair Play rules.

Juventus announced their results recently and made a loss of € 210 million, which at the time was the highest ever for a Serie A club. Inter Milan topped that with a € 245 million loss in their title-winning season. AC Milan’s loss was € 96.4 million, a huge deficit but much lower than 2019-20 when they lost almost € 200 million.

In spite of these setback, Serie A has become very attractive for US investors like Friedkin owing to the competitive pricing of clubs and future broadcasting rights. Seven members of Serie A and two from Serie B currently have US backers in some capacity. 

Roma’s revenues actually increased by 35% to € 190 million, but their wage bill accounted for a very disconcerting 89% of income. Unsurprisingly, matchday income declined by 37% and since 2018-29 has dropped by 62%. TV income was up by 44% to € 124 million and commercial and other streams were up by 50% to € 53 million.

The biggest anxiety surrounding the financial results could eventually be the Financial Fair Play issues. The club’s press release said: “On the basis of the final figures as at June 30, 2021, a deviation from the UEFA break-even requirements for the reporting period for four years has been recorded. Therefore, the club may be subject to the sending of more economic-financial information and, subsequently, the Club Control Body in charge of the control, may requiest any contradictory clarifications for the appropriate assessments.” 

This may mean the club will face sanctions, although the rules are currently being rewritten and FFP punishments suspended. When they become operational again, a number of Italian clubs could be compromised.

Roma were less active than Juventus, AC Milan and Parma in the transfer market in 2020-21 but in 2021-22, they are so far the biggest spenders in Serie A having acquired € 100 million of fresh talent, including Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham (€ 40 million). Roma’s ability to spend underlines the confidence the club’s owners have in their objective of challenging at the top of Serie A and in Europe.

The Friedkin Group recently injected more cash in the club bringing Roma’s net debt to over € 300 million. They are, however, planning a capital increase of up to € 460 million, to be completed by the end of 2022. When they took the club over in August 2020, the company’s CEO, Dan Friedkin, proclaimed that Roma could become on the greatest names in football. 

But since the takeover, Roma have shelved plans for a planned new stadium after earlier signs that the project was gathering momentum. In February 2019, the city’s mayor said private financing was willing to contribute € 1 billion towards the cost. The new 55,000 arena was being driven by the club’s previous owner, James Pallotta. Friedkin subsequently analysed the scheme and came to the conclusion the financial, economic and legal conditions were unsuitable. It’s not completely over, though, as the club has confirmed they are in talks with the Rome authorities and reviewing their options, including a green and sustainable stadium for the future.

Last season, under Paulo Fonseca, Roma reached the semi-finals of the Europa League but were heavily beaten at Manchester United (6-2) at Old Trafford and eventually went out 8-5 on aggregate. They also finished seventh in Serie A, thus qualifying for the inaugural Conference League. 

Absence from the UEFA Champions League (and the Europa) will cost Roma dear in 2021-22. Every point in the group stage of the Champions League earns € 930,000 and just qualifying for the knockout stages wins a further € 9.6 million. With Serie A clubs suffering more than most from the pandemic, the income from the Champions League is vital, especially in the current climate. The Conference League prize money is, understandably, much lower, € 500,000 for a group stage win and winning the group yields € 650,000.

Roma’s goal is clearly to get among the Champions League contenders, but they will have to improve their away form in Serie A. Their home record is good, five wins and a draw and only two goals conceded, but away from the Stadio Olimpico they have won once and lost their last three games, the most recent at Juve. Their latest performance saw them hold early season leaders Napoli to a 0-0 draw, a game that saw Mourinho sent off, but one that redeemed the team after the disaster at Bodo/Glimt.

Roma remain one of Europe’s underachievers and their three scudettos – the last in 2001 – is a paltry return for such a big, well supported club. Although they have won nine Coppa Italias, their only success in Europe has been the fledgling Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1961. Although they have the potential to be champions and a European force, they are currently way behind the likes of Juventus in terms of financial clout or business acumen. Regardless of that, the 2021-22 season may be one of the most open in Italian football history, there’s an opportunity to be grasped.