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Serie A preview, Week 1: Italy's top flight finally kicks off

Gabriele Maltinti

Welcome back, calcio! Yes, that's right, Serie A is finally ready to begin, ending the long, cold, dark summer months that have been upon us. Changes abound, of course, but what's most significant about the 2014-2015 season is the hope that's permeating both the clubs and the fans.

You see, Antonio Conte is no longer in charge of Juventus. Managerial shifts happen regularly, particularly in Italian football, but this one is significant, as it was Conte that shaped the bianconeri squad and sent them on their way to three consecutive league titles.

Juve have managed to hold on to their best players, but the absence of Conte is making many optimistic that this campaign just might be much more open than the last few. The Old Lady will still be in the title fight, and could very well win their fourth straight. But Roma are ready to challenge for the scudetto, even if their Champions League duties makes that difficult. Napoli, now without such obligations, are intent on being in the race. Inter have seemingly sorted themselves out and want a top three finish, while Fiorentina are rather tired of barely missing out on the glory spots.

Yes, this could well be a thrilling season.

Chievo Verona vs. Juventus

Saturday, August 30 at 6 p.m. local, 12 noon ET
The Bentegodi, Verona

Chievo boast the dubious honor of kicking off the 2014-2015 Serie A season by playing host to Juventus. Yep, last season's second-to-bottom placed side (excluding the ones now hanging out in Serie B, of course) has to start the season by attempting to get a result against last season's scudetto winners (and the season before that, and the season before that). Even the fact that the Old Lady are now coached by Massimiliano Allegri isn't going to bring much comfort to the Flying Donkeys.

AS Roma vs. Fiorentina

Saturday, August 30 at 8:45 p.m. local, 2:45 p.m. ET
The Stadio Olimpico, Rome

The gods of calcio made up for launching the season with a rather dull matchup by placing what should be a thriller in Saturday night's top spot. Roma have title ambitions. Fiorentina want to finish top three. Both sides love to attack. And with Roma having just lost Mehdi Benatia to Bayern Munich, and the viola finally having at least one healthy forward, this one could be a thriller.

AC Milan vs. Lazio

Sunday, August 31 at 6 p.m. local, 12 noon ET
The San Siro, Milan

This isn't a bad match to start off the first Serie A Sunday. Both teams have something of a point to prove, having both finished outside the European positions last season, and generally failing to live up to fans' expectations. Lazio have spent the summer bringing in both plenty of new faces and a coach that's new to the organization. Milan, meanwhile, have handed the reigns to club legend Filippo Inzaghi, have supplemented their squad with some rather uninspiring buys, and sold Mario Balotelli to Liverpool. Europe beckons.

Atalanta vs. Hellas Verona

Sunday, August 31 at 6 p.m. local, 12 noon ET
The Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia, Bergamo

Barring an affection for one of these sides, there's little reason to favor this match over Milan - Lazio. While Verona made a decent start to their Serie A campaign last season, they faded after January, finishing 10th to Atalanta's 11th. There's not much reason to think either side can do more than finish mid-table this season, although neither should be facing a relegation battle.

Cesena vs. Parma

Sunday, August 31 at 8:45 p.m. local, 2:45 p.m. ET
The Stadio Dino Manuzzi, Cesena

The Seahorses are back! Ok, so there's little reason to get excited about Cesena, besides their nickname, of course. The last time they were in Serie A, in 2011-2012, they won exactly four league matches. The last of those was on January 15th. Cesena then proceeded to grab six more points and finish dead last. Parma are likely looking forward to such a good opening-day opponent: the crociati finished sixth last season, but an administrative error kept them out of Europe, so they need to extract some revenge.

Genoa vs. Napoli

Sunday, August 31 at 8:45 p.m. local, 2:45 p.m. ET
The Marassi, Genoa

The writing's on the wall: If Napoli don't come away from their first Serie A match with a decent result, Rafa Benítez could well be looking for a new job. It wasn't so much the loss to Athletic Bilbao -- sending them to Europa League rather than the Champions League group stages -- that was the problem, but rather how shambolic the partenopei looked in Spain. Owner Aurelio De Laurentiis has tried to put a positive spin on things, saying the side can now concentrate on the league, but that means Rafa needs to produce wins. Genoa, who finished 14th last season, can be a tricky opponent, particularly on their home turf.

Palermo vs. Sampdoria

Sunday, August 31 at 8:45 p.m. local, 2:45 p.m. ET
The Stadio Renzo Barbera, Palermo

Palermo are back! Yes, this is a bit more exciting than Cesena, because who didn't miss the lovely pink shirts of the rosanero last season? It was a bit of a shock when the Sicilian side went down two years ago, but they won Serie B with acres of room to spare, and they'll likely be able to hang in the top flight this season. Sampdoria faced an early scare last season, but Siniša Mihajlović managed to right the ship. Doria stuttered a bit toward the end of the campaign, however, so this match could prove to be quite interesting for both sides.

Sassuolo vs. Cagliari

Sunday, August 31 at 8:45 p.m. local, 2:45 p.m. ET
The Città del Tricolore, Reggio Emilia

Don't have a horse in this race? Looking for some pure fun? Try this match. Sassuolo looked dead and buried last season -- their first ever in Serie A -- but somehow managed to come back to life, finishing two points into safety. Credit goes to Eusebio Di Francesco, fired (incomprehensibly) by Sassuolo at the end of January, and brought back at the beginning of March. The man loves an attack, but not as much as the coach that will be sitting opposite him come Sunday. Zdeněk Zeman takes charge of Cagliari, meaning we're highly unlikely to see a bunch of goalless draws from the isolani again this season. The Czech has already stacked his side with young, attack-minded players, making Cagliari a much-watch side. Until Zeman gets the boot, of course.

Torino vs. Inter Milan

Sunday, August 31 at 8:45 p.m. local, 2:45 p.m. ET
The Stadio Olimpico, Turin

This match may feature the biggest names of the late games, but it also has the potential to be rather dull. Torino have lost their best player, with Ciro Immobile now looking seriously strange in Dortmund's bright yellow kit, and there's no telling whether they'll be able to hang on to Alessio Cerci, either. As for Inter, well, they've brought in some decent players and kicked out the old guard, but that doesn't mean Walter Mazzarri has made changes to his set-in-stone ways. Yet somehow both of these teams managed to find themselves in quite a few high-scoring, randomly hilarious matches last season, so this one could turn out to surprise.

Udinese vs. Empoli

Sunday, August 31 at 8:45 p.m. local, 2:45 p.m. ET
The Stadio Friuli, Udine

What to expect from this one? After four years in charge of the zebrette, Francesco Guidolin is out, replaced by Andrea Stramaccioni, most recently seen garnering laughs while in the Inter dugout. But considering Udinese had difficulty finishing even 13th last season -- after securing Europe regularly under Guidolin -- it's difficult to believe Strama could do much worse. As for Empoli, they enter Serie A after finishing second in Serie B last season, but they've done little to supplement and strengthen their young squad.