Ambitious AC Milan the team to beat again in Serie A
AC Milan started pre-season the same way it ended its title-winning campaign, with two goals from veteran forward Olivier Giroud.
The goals in the 2-1 victory at Cologne in a friendly counted for a lot less than the double against Sassuolo that clinched Milan the Serie A title 55 days earlier, but it was a good sign for Giroud and his teammates.
Title rivals Juventus and Inter Milan managed to get Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku back, respectively, making Milan's challenge of retaining the title all the harder.
A successful run would be Milan's 20th Serie A title, earning it another star on its shirt because Italian teams are given a star for each 10 league titles.
It would also see the team surpass local rival Inter, which has won the title 19 times. Only Juventus, with 36 league titles, has more.
"Achieving the second star and thus the 20th title is the aim, it was one of the first things that (directors Paolo) Maldini and (Frederic) Massara told me," Milan forward Divock Origi said. "We will do our utmost to make it possible and obviously it would be a great result."
Origi is the only new player Milan has signed so far in the offseason, although the club has made the loan signings of Alessandro Florenzi and Junior Messias permanent and also French youngster Yacine Adli has returned from his loan spell at Bordeaux.
More significantly, however, Milan appears to be on the verge of completing the signing of talented young playmaker Charles De Ketelaere from Club Brugge.
While the 21-year-old Belgium midfielder might not be as big a name as the players some of its rivals have signed, it sees Milan sticking with the blend of youth and experience that helped end its lengthy wait for the title. Zlatan Ibrahimović, who turns 41 in October, has also renewed his contract for another year.
Ibrahimović and Giroud have already won a slew of trophies. But for many of Milan's young team, the league title was their first taste of success. And that has whet their appetite for more, with many cutting their vacation short and returning to pre-season training earlier than scheduled.
That appears to have worked with some impressive results in friendlies, including a 5-0 drubbing of Wolfsburg and a convincing 2-0 victory over French league runner-up Marseille on Sunday.
"We have finally understood our worth and we have understood how important it is to prepare ourselves well, how difficult it is to win, what we need to stay at the highest levels, so I see the boys even readier for this season, even more prepared and with even more attention to detail," Milan coach Stefano Pioli said. "I am convinced that this is a cycle that has just started and not one that is about to end."
Massimiliano Allegri returned as Juventus coach last year — two years after being fired — but the Bianconeri ended the season without a trophy for the first time in 11 years.
The storied club won nine straight league titles until 2020 and even in Andrea Pirlo's disappointing stint in charge the team still won the Italian Cup and Italian Super Cup.
The Bianconeri were hoping Pogba could bring the glory days back after returning from Manchester United. But the France international continues to be plagued by injuries and could be out until the new year, missing the World Cup as well as a significant chunk of the season.
Pogba sustained a knee injury during one of his first training sessions back at Juventus and now faces a decision on whether to opt for surgery which should fix the problem definitively but would see him out until 2023 or less invasive treatment with a shorter recovery time but which might not be as effective.
Juventus has also signed midfielder Ángel Di María as a free agent after seven years at Paris Saint-Germain and defender Gleison Bremer from city rival Torino as it aims to improve on two straight fourth-place finishes.
Inter looks set to be Milan's main challenger.
After losing the title to its city rival, having ended its own lengthy wait the previous season, Inter moved swiftly in the transfer market to fulfil its aim of coach Simone Inzaghi having his squad ready for the start of pre-season.
Inter signed midfielders Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Kristjan Asllani, and goalkeeper André Onana but most significantly it brought Lukaku back a year after his acrimonious departure to Chelsea.
And Lukaku will be swiftly forgiven if he leads Inter to the title again.
Lukaku scored 47 goals in 72 appearances in Serie A in his two previous seasons with Inter and formed a formidable partnership with Lautaro Martínez — dubbed "LuLa" by the Italian media — that helped the Nerazzurri win the league in 2021 for the first time in 11 years.
Napoli, Atalanta and Roma could also be dark horses for the title, although the trio boast only five scudetto wins between them, with the most recent being Roma's Serie A victory in 2001.
In Jose Mourinho's first year in charge, he steered Roma to the Europa Conference League title — the club's first trophy in 14 years.
Mourinho and Roma have even loftier ambitions this season. Having finished sixth last season in Serie A it will be targeting a top-four finish and a Champions League spot.
But quietly the capital club could be hoping for even more, especially after the marquee signing of former Juventus forward Paulo Dybala.
Napoli also can't be ruled out, if the team manages to keep up its title challenge for the whole season.
It looked set to push the Milan teams all the way last campaign before a mid-season slump dented its title hopes. The team eventually finished third, seven points behind the Rossoneri.
However, Napoli will also have to cope this year with the departure of players such as captain Lorenzo Insigne and all-time leading scorer Dries Mertens as well as defender Kalidou Koulibaly.
After three straight third-place finishes, Atalanta's eighth place last season will have been a disappointment to some. But it leaves the team coached by Gian Piero Gasperini free to focus on Serie A without the distraction of the Champions League — or any European soccer.
Atalanta, which won Serie B in 2011, has never claimed Italian soccer's top prize and a spot in the Champions League was already seen as an incredible achievement for the team from the small city of Bergamo, less than 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Milan.
Beating its more illustrious neighbors to the Serie A title would be a feat beyond most fans' wildest dreams.