Top-flight football has returned to Italy on schedule, but yet again the start of the season was marred by controversy, with Serie B matches delayed following a row over the expansion of the division and television rights.

Controversy struck the second division after Sicilian team Catania challenged its relegation to Serie C at the end of last season, claiming it could have been saved by the points it had lost against Siena, who it said had fielded a player illegally during their match. The Italian football federation (FIGC) ruled that both Catania and two of the other sides that had been relegated, Genoa and Salernitana, should be allowed to remain in the second division.

It also announced that Fiorentina, a former giant of Italian football which fought its way back to Serie C2 after going bankrupt last year, should be promoted to the second division, taking the number of teams from 20 to 24. However, Serie B clubs are against the expansion, which they say lessens their chances of promotion and means they must play more matches for less money, as earnings must be shared among more teams. Nineteen second division clubs boycotted the first round of matches on 30-31 August in protest at the enlargement, and as yet only two games have been played on 7 September Como beat Napoli and Catania lost to Cagliari.

Another issue that threatened to affect the start of the new season was the battle between Sky Italia, the pay-TV platform launched by Rupert Murdoch following his takeover of Italian broadcaster Telepi, and Gioco Calcio, the satellite channel formed by a consortium of smaller clubs. Gioco Calcio finally reached an agreement with Sky Italia to broadcast Serie B and less important Serie A matches a few days before the top-flight season began.

Away from the controversies, the main contenders for this year's scudetto, or Serie A title, include current holders Juventus, the Turin club; their fellow northern giants AC Milan and Inter Milan; and Lazio, who, led by charismatic coach Roberto Mancini, finished fourth last season despite financial difficulties. The capitals other side, Roma, struggled to a disappointing eighth place last term and are unlikely to provide a strong challenge.

Among the players set to grab the headlines are Juves striker and national hero Alessandro Del Piero, and Inter Milans Christian Vieri, Serie As top scorer with 24 goals last season. AC Milans Filippo Inzaghi netted 17 times last term and plays alongside star defender Alessandro Nesta and new signing Leonardo Kak, a creative midfielder from Brazil and one of few foreign players to join Italys top flight over the summer. Romas talismanic captain Francesco Totti is rarely out of the news, and his new teammate, Romanian defender Christian Chivu, is one to watch.

Italian clubs will also be hoping for a strong performance in this season's prestigious European Champions' League, having filled three of the four semi-final spots last year. Look out for the big four: title-holders Milan, owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi; Juventus, who were defeated in a penalty shoot-out in the final; Inter Milan, who lost out to their city rivals in the semi-finals last year; and Lazio, who had to be content with a place in the last four of the second-tier UEFA Cup.

Meanwhile the Azzurri, Italy's national side, continue their campaign to qualify for next summer's Euro 2004 tournament in Portugal. A convincing 4-0 win over Wales at the S. Siro stadium in Milan on 6 September took them to the top of their qualifying group, but they still need to pick up points in an away match against Serbia and Montenegro on 10 September and against Azerbaijan at home on 10 October.

The winners of the 10 qualifying groups will go through automatically to the Euro 2004 finals. The Azzurri were narrowly defeated by France in the final of the last European championships, held in the Netherlands in 2000.

Picture: AC Milan defender Alessandro Nesta is a member of the Italy squad that defeated Wales on 6 September.