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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Crises of Napoli and Verona fuel Serie A’s winter window as Premier League freeze spreads

The January transfer record in Serie A will not be broken for a long time.

Two years ago, Juventus paid around €90million (£76.8m; $97.1m) for Dusan Vlahovic. Only 22 at the time, the investment was justified on the basis Juventus wanted to avoid an auction with Premier League teams in the summer.

Vlahovic was billed as one of the best up-and-coming strikers of the next generation. He was perceived, at least in Italy, to be in the tier just below Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland. His impact in Turin was instant. Vlahovic scored on his Serie A and Champions League debuts in black and white, but it wasn’t sustained.

Injuries, a lack of support and the turbulence engulfing Juventus slowed his progress. Only now is Vlahovic beginning to show the prolific nature he displayed at Fiorentina. The six goals he scored in January was the most by a Juventus player since Cristiano Ronaldo in 2020.

Looking at the gross transfer spend by all 20 clubs in Serie A this winter, it amounts to the equivalent, more or less, of one Vlahovic. The market has contracted. Italy’s giants have done next to nothing. Juventus paid Lille a small price for Tiago Djalo, a 23-year-old centre-back, who has spent this season recovering from a knee injury. The fee ensured Juventus beat the competition to sign him on a free when his contract expires in the summer.

Inter Milan moved for Canada international and Club Bruges full-back Tajon Buchanan, 24, to provide extra cover for Denzel Dumfries, whose alternative, Matteo Darmian, is being stretched. Darmian also has to deputise at centre-back on the occasions Benjamin Pavard is out. Yann Bisseck is still learning the ropes. Only AC Milan bought an Italian player, belatedly upgrading captain Davide Calabria with Filippo Terracciano, a 20-year-old full-back from Hellas Verona who can also play in midfield.

Inter’s Buchanan (Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)

There has been no trickle-down effect like in the past. Instead, the market has been driven by two forces. The first is a crisis at Verona. In December, the Guardia di Finanza, Italy’s fraud squad, seized Star Ball Ltd, a company in possession of 100 per cent of the shares in Verona as a precautionary measure in a long-running bankruptcy dispute.

Since then, Verona, who only survived last year by virtue of the first relegation play-off in 18 years, have sold the players who saved them and, frankly, it’s a wonder how they will pull themselves out of the mire this time around.

The heroes of the play-off against Lo Spezia, Cyril Ngonge (Napoli) and Davide Faraoni (Fiorentina), are gone. As are Milan Duric (Monza), the aforementioned Terracciano (Milan), Isak Hien (Atalanta) and the Scot Josh Doig (Sassuolo) for a welcome total of €41.7m. If coach Marco Baroni manages to keep Verona up, it will be a miracle. Ngonge (top image) scored twice against Lo Spezia in June and was Verona’s top scorer this season along with Duric.

Ngonge constitutes the most expensive signing of the window in Italy at €18m. Napoli pounced on him to revive an attack that has failed to score in six of its last eight games.

The champions have been the other market catalysts this winter. Owner Aurelio De Laurentiis has intervened mid-season, as he did in 2020, with a series of corrective measures to halt one of the worst title defences in Serie A history. Ninth and an embarrassing 24 points off where they were at this stage last year, Napoli sold Eljif Elmas to RB Leipzig early in the window and used the proceeds to buy Ngonge and the Naples-born-and-bred 28-year-old wing-back Pasquale Mazzocchi (who swiftly got sent off on his debut) from Salernitana. They also loaned Hamed Traore from Bournemouth and Leander Dendoncker from Wolves.

Ordinarily, such an open race for fourth spot (or even fifth considering Serie A is top of the UEFA co-efficient and therefore in line, for now, to receive an extra place in next year’s expanded Champions League) would encourage teams to roll the dice.

Roma found some late wriggle room within the tightest of financial fair play binds. The exits of Matias Vina (Flamengo, €9m), Marash Kumbulla (Sassuolo, loan) and Andrea Belotti (Fiorentina, loan) allowed the Giallorossi to retool the squad for new coach Daniele De Rossi and discover enough cash down the back of the sofa for the dainty Tommaso Baldanzi, 20, as a Paulo Dybala alternative from Empoli.

As for Bologna, a revelation under Thiago Motta, they have come closest to rivalling Napoli for the biggest signing of the window. Santiago Castro, the 19-year-old striker from Velez Sarsfield in Argentina, is already generating hype as the successor to the majestic Joshua Zirkzee, a player with no shortage of elite suitors ahead of the summer. Fiorentina copied them in adding a centre-forward, although it remains to be seen if Belotti fares better than Lucas Beltran and Mbala N’Zola, who have not convinced in front of goal this season.

Generally, the cold Premier League winter and its overdue enforcement of profit and sustainability rules has contributed to a big freeze in Serie A. Apart from Tottenham Hotspur’s €31m acquisition of Radu Dragusin from Genoa — the biggest sale of the window — English clubs did not go shopping in Italy like they did a year ago when Arsenal lavished €25m on Spezia’s Jakub Kiwior and Nicolo Zaniolo almost followed Traore to Bournemouth. This reluctance is perhaps a consequence of Sandro Tonali’s betting ban and the initial fear the scandal was more widespread than it appears.

On the flip side, the end of the tax break that for four years granted Serie A clubs a competitive advantage in the transfer market made it harder to afford, in Juventus’ case, the salaries of Premier League players like Kalvin Phillips and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.

Cover for Paul Pogba and Nicolo Fagioli, both of whom are suspended, was eventually found in Southampton’s Carlos Alcaraz (a loan with an eye-watering €53m option), part of a trend of Italian teams going down to the Championship in search of value. Lazio, for example, showed interest in signing Plymouth’s Morgan Whittaker and Norwich’s Jonathan Rowe.

Minimal trading with the Premier League has been matched by next to nothing going on with the Saudi Pro League. Al Ittihad tried to buy Matias Soule from Juventus but as players come to look upon Saudi as not all it’s cracked up to be, can we expect it to continue as a cash machine for clubs looking to boost their transfer budgets?

Juventus have signed Djalo (Daniele Badolato – Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images)

Overall, Serie A is poorer now than it was a year ago. The new TV deal has gone backwards and where Italian clubs used to do a high volume of cash-neutral, balance sheet-massaging swaps, investigations into those kinds of transactions have almost put a stop to them altogether. Teams are also keeping their powder dry ahead of the summer when more than a handful of clubs are expected to change coach, which raises the question: is it worth buying a player now for someone who won’t be around in six months?

The summer will no doubt be livelier, but football, not just in Italy, seems to be in the middle of a market correction that could make quieter windows a more regular occurrence.

(Top photo: Antonio Balasco/Kontrolab/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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