AC Milan started pre-season in the same way they ended their title-winning campaign, with two goals from veteran forward Olivier Giroud.
The goal tally in a 2-1 win in a friendly at Cologne was far short of the double against Sassuolo that had won 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 back Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku respectively, making Milan’s challenge to retain the title even more difficult.
A successful run would be Milan’s 20th Serie A title, giving them one more star on their shirt as Italian teams are awarded one for every 10 league titles.
That team will also surpass local rivals Inter, who have won the title 19 times. Only Juventus have more with 36 league titles.
“The goal is to achieve another star and thus a 20th title, that was one of the first things (directors) Paolo Maldini and (Frederick) Massara said to me,” Milan forward Divock Origi said. “We will do our best to make it possible and obviously it will be a great result.”
Origi is the only new player Milan have signed so far in the off-season, although the club have made the loan signings of Alessandro Florenzi and Junior Messias permanent and French youngster Yassin Adly has also returned from a loan at Bordeaux.
However, more significantly, Milan appear to be on the verge of completing the signing of talented young playmaker Charles de Catellere from Club Brugge.
While the 21-year-old Belgium midfielder may not be as big a name as the players some of his rivals have signed, he sees Milan sticking with the mix of youth and experience that helped end their long wait for the title. Zlatan Ibrahimović, who turns 41 in October, has also renewed his contract for another year.
Ibrahimovic and Giroud have already won many trophies. But for many of Milan’s young squad, the league title was their first taste of success. And because of that, they’re more hungry, with many cutting their vacations short and returning to pre-season training earlier than scheduled.
That seems to have worked with some impressive results in friendlies, including a 5-0 thrashing of Wolfsburg and a convincing 2-0 win over French league runners-up Marseille on Sunday.
“We finally understand our worth and we understand how important it is to prepare ourselves well, how hard it is to win, what we need to be at a high level, so I see the boys more prepared for this season. Prepared and with more attention to detail, said Milan coach Stefano Pioli. “I am convinced that this is a cycle that has just begun and is not going to end.”
Massimiliano Allegri returned as Juventus coach last year – two years after being sacked – but the Bianconeri ended the season without a trophy for the first time in 11 years.
The storied club won nine league titles in a row until 2020 and the team also won the Italian Cup and the Italian Super Cup during Andrea Pirlo’s disappointing tenure.
The Bianconeri were hoping that Pogba could bring glory days after his return from Manchester United. But with the France international plagued by injuries and likely to be out until the New Year, he could be missing out the world Cup as well as a significant part of the season.
Pogba suffered a knee injury during one of his first training sessions back at Juventus and now faces the decision of whether to opt for surgery that would definitively fix the problem but see him out until 2023 or with a shorter recovery time with less invasive treatment. Which may not be as effective.
Juventus have also signed midfielder Angel Di Maria as a free agent after seven years at Paris Saint-Germain and defender Gleeson Bremer from city rivals Torino as they aim to improve on two straight fourth-place finishes.
Inter looks poised to become Milan’s main challenger.
After losing the title to their city rivals, ending their own long wait the previous season, Inter quickly moved into the transfer market to fulfill coach Simone Inzaghi’s aim of having his squad ready for the start of pre-season.
Inter signed midfielders Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Kristjan Aslani and goalkeeper Andre Onana but most notably brought back Lukaku a year after his acrimonious departure to Chelsea.
And Lukaku will be quickly forgiven if he leads Inter to the title again.
Lukaku scored 47 goals in 72 Serie A appearances in his previous two seasons with Inter and formed a formidable partnership with Lautaro Martinez – nicknamed “Lula” by the Italian media – that helped the Nerazzurri win the league for the first time in 11 in 2021. year
Napoli, Atalanta and Roma could also be dark horses for the title, although the trio have only won five Scudettos between them, the most recent being Roma’s Serie A triumph in 2001.
In Jose Mourinho’s first year in charge, he led Roma to the Europa Conference League title – the club’s first trophy in 14 years.
Mourinho and Roma have even higher ambitions this season. Having finished sixth in Serie A last season, they will be aiming for a top-four finish and a place in the Champions League.
But the quietly moody club can still hope for more, especially after the marquee signing of former Juventus forward Paulo Dybala.
Napoli cannot be ruled out either, if the team manages to maintain its title challenge for the rest of the season.
He looked set to push Milan teams all the way to the top last campaign before a mid-season slump dashed his title hopes. The team eventually finished third, seven points behind the Rossoneri.
However, Napoli will also have to deal with the departure of captain Lorenzo Insigne and all-time leading scorer Dries Mertens as well as defender Kalidou Koulibaly this year.
After three straight third-place finishes, Atlanta’s eighth-place finish last season will be disappointing to some. But that frees up the Gian Piero Gasparini-coached squad to focus on Serie A without the distraction of the Champions League – or any European soccer.
Atalanta, who won Serie B in 2011, have never claimed Italian soccer’s top prize and a place in the Champions League was already seen as an incredible achievement for the team from Bergamo, a small town less than 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Milan. .
Beating its more prestigious neighbors to clinch the Serie A title would be a feat beyond most fans’ wildest dreams.