Football: Players to watch in Serie A this season

ROME, Barnaby Chesterman- With Serie A's two biggest foreign stars having packed their bags and headed to Spain this summer -- Kaka to Real Madrid and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Barcelona -- the question is, who will light up the scudetto in 2009/10.
Here are five players to keep an eye on during the coming campaign.
Samuel Eto'o (Inter Milan) - The makeweight in the Ibrahimovic transfer to Barca, it would be wrong to assume that the prolific Cameroon striker's star is waning. Barca may have coughed up 50 million euros as well as Eto'o to bring in the big Swede but that should not be taken as a reflection of actual market value. Eto'o, allegedly a troublesome character in the Barca dressing room, is unlikely to be a problem under Jose Mourinho, who is known to be a strict disciplinarian.

Football: Players to watch in Serie A this season
What's more, he has always been far more prolific than Ibrahimovic. He scored 30 goals in 36 league games last season and 108 strikes in 145 La Liga matches during his five seasons with the Catalan giants. Before that he even managed a goal every other game in his last two seasons with minnows Majorca, so this is a proven marksman. Add to that goals in two Champions League finals and you have someone who can be counted on for big occasions. Mourinho described this transfer as the deal of the century for Inter and if the lightning quick Eto'o produces his Barca form, it could quickly become a case of Zlatan who? on the San Siro terraces this campaign.
Diego (Juventus) - If the Old Lady of Turin are to claim a first Serie A title since 2003, a lot will depend on the form of Brazilian playmaker Diego. Juve have been heading in the right direction since being stripped of two league titles and relegated to Serie B in 2006 for match fixing. They won the lower division and in their two years back in the top flight finished third and then second. However, with the now retired Pavel Nedved and Alessandro Del Piero both having seen better days, Juve lacked guile and creativity, becoming more functional than entertaining. The hope is that Diego will provide the spark that will take the most successful club in Italy to the next level, that of champions once again. His form for Werder Bremen would suggest he is the man to do just that. After two disappointing years in Portugal, he rediscovered in Germany the form that made him such a sought-after propsect during his Santos days. However, in Italy he will be not only in a tougher league than he has experienced before, but also a far more defensively minded one, meaning it will be that much tougher to create chances.
Ronaldinho (AC Milan) - With Kaka departed it is probably a case of now or never for Ronaldinho. He was Milan's marquee signing last season, who alongside compatriots Kaka and Pato was supposed to be the final piece in a triumvirate to rival that of Swede's Gunnar Grenn, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm or Dutchman Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard. Ronaldinho started brightly and was a major player until Christmas but following an injury and a lack of commitment to training, he lost his form and his place in the side. Now, though, he has to step up to the plate and if Milan are to stand any chance of challenging for honours, a lot will depend on the former twice world player of the year. Possibly not since Diego Maradona graced Napoli's shirt has one player's form been so crucial to a Serie A team. Maradona guided Napoli to two Serie A crowns and if Ronaldinho can reproduce his form of three years ago, he could do likewise for Milan. But if he continues to be the shadow of a player he has been for the last two years, this season could become a disaster both for him and his club.
Ezequiel Lavezzi (Napoli) - This could well be a make or break season for Argentine Lavezzi. The man once dubbed 'The New Maradona' started brilliantly last season as Napoli briefly topped Serie A and looked capable of mounting a title challenge. However, both their and Lavezzi's form dipped and the club finished well down in the bottom half of the table. Even so, some of Europe's top clubs sniffed around Lavezzi. The player himself tried to force through a move to Liverpool before being forced to beat a humble retreat and commit himself to the Neapolitans. At the age of 24, Lavezzi can no longer be described as a prospect. He is a full international and heading for the peak period of his career. And now is the time to start delivering a final product. Despite all his flair, Lavezzi's scoring record is dire for a striker: 15 goals in 65 league games over the last two seasons. If he can add goals and consistency to his all-round performances, he could become one of the stars of Serie A, and then next summer Napoli certainly won't be able to hold onto him.
Mario Balotelli (Inter Milan) - With the World Cup just a year away this season will be crucial for players trying to secure a seat on flights to South Africa. In Italy there seems to be a dearth of truly special strikers with grafters such as Luca Toni, Vincenzo Iaquinta and Alberto Gilardino often starting up front for the Azzurri. In Balotelli, though, the country has a prodigious teenage talent whose potential is far greater than that of those ahead of him in the national pecking order. However, he has to contend with both Eto'o and Diego Milito for a starting berth in the Inter Milan line-up. Last year he showed flashes of brilliance and more importantly also displayed greater dedication to Mourinho's tactical requirements. If he can force his way into the Inter side, something the forward of Ghanaian origin has the talent to achieve, then he may also make a late run to be included in the World Cup party. If not he may still prove to be a useful joker in the Inter pack, making an impact when called on to replace either Eto'o or Milito.

Friday, August 21st 2009
Barnaby Chesterman

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