- Associated Press - Thursday, August 20, 2015

MILAN (AP) - Serie A has had a familiar look to it in the past two seasons, with Juventus winning the league title and Roma finishing second.

Ahead of this weekend’s opening round, not too many are betting against a fifth successive crown for Juventus, while Roma once again appears to be the most realistic challenger.

However, Juve’s title bid is by no means a foregone conclusion after the departures of key players Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Carlos Tevez, and the fact that new signings could take a while to settle in.

Moreover, other clubs have been busy in the offseason and, if nothing else, the race for the Champions League places could be the most exciting yet.

A true test of Roma’s title ambitions comes early, with the visit of Juventus in the second match of the season.

“I don’t know (if Juventus is too soon) and we can’t do anything about it,” Roma coach Rudi Garcia said. “But for us there are no problems. It will be a very long season. There will be more competition with respect to last year.”

Garcia said there are “other interesting teams”, including Inter and AC Milan, Napoli and Fiorentina.

Here are the clubs likeliest to threaten Juventus’ title defense:

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ROMA

Roma expects. After two years of finishing second, nothing less than a league title will do.

When Roma was runnerup the first time, there was joy and optimism. Last year felt like a failure.

A mid-season slump, which saw Roma win just two of 11 matches, meant the capital side never really looked like genuine title contenders. It almost lost out on second place, pipping city rival Lazio by just one point.

However, Roma has appeared to have made some astute signings, bringing in Edin Dzeko, Iago Falque and Mohamed Salah to add some much-needed firepower to a side which scored just 54 goals last season - by far the worst of any side in the top six.

Dzeko is a proven prolific goalscorer, while Salah impressed during a loan spell at Fiorentina from Chelsea in the second half of last season.

Roma lost few matches thanks to its solid defense but points were needlessly thrown away by a lack of efficiency in front of goal, as it was held to 13 draws.

It has further bolstered its defense with the arrival of goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny from Arsenal and he will provide competition for the 38-year-old Morgan De Sanctis.

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LAZIO

Few expected much from Lazio last season.

The capital side had finished ninth in the previous campaign and had brought in several new players as well as a new coach in Stefano Pioli.

Lazio started sluggishly but rapidly picked up the pace and finished a deserved third, beating Napoli 4-2 on the final day of the season to secure the Champions League playoff spot.

If it can keep up the form from its second half of the season, which saw it win eight on the trot as well as reach the Italian Cup final, Lazio could emerge as a realistic title challenger.

Lazio has been relatively inactive in the transfer market this year although it could be waiting on the result of its Champions League playoff with Bayer Leverkusen. The Italian side leads 1-0 ahead of next week’s return match in Germany.

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FIORENTINA

New Fiorentina coach Paulo Sousa appears to have had an instant impact since replacing Vincenzo Montella in the offseason.

Although friendlies count for little, Fiorentina has won its past four - including victories over Chelsea and Barcelona.

Fiorentina had a difficult season last year, with star striker Giuseppe Rossi absent with a season-long injury and Mario Gomez struggling for form, but still managed to finish fourth as well as reaching the semifinals of the Europa League and the Italian Cup.

It has boosted its attack with the signing of Nikola Kalinic and brought in Mario Suarez, Gilberto and Davide Astori. Goalkeeper Lugi Sepe has also joined from Empoli, where he was key to avoiding relegation.

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AC MILAN

It has been a disappointing few years for AC Milan and its fans but there are signs the former Italian giant could be back after a summer of change.

Since winning Serie A in 2011, Milan has been in a downward spiral linked to reduced spending by club owner Silvio Berlusconi. The Rossoneri finished eighth and 10th in the past two seasons, failing to qualify for Europe each time.

Realising something had to be done, Berlusconi recently agreed a deal to sell a 48 percent stake in Milan to Thai investor Bee Taechaubol, for a reported 485 million euros ($543 million), and has now bucked his trend of not spending.

Milan has been active on the transfer market, signing Colombia striker Carlos Bacca from Sevilla for 30 million euros ($34 million) as well as paying around 85 million euros ($95 million) for Luiz Adriano, Andrea Bertolacci and Alessio Romagnoli.

It has also brought in proven coach Sinisa Mihajlovic, who has impressed in his past two seasons at Sampdoria.

“Sinisa is our most important signing, we’re counting on taking Milan back into the Champions League,” Berlusconi said. “I can say that we’re thinking about getting very positive results in the league. Plus, you can’t start by saying we’re second or third, we’re aiming for first place.”

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