The Premiership hopefuls

Twenty teams will battle to win the Premiership this season.

Today we look at North East rivals Middlesbrough and Sunderland, and Midlands trio Aston Villa, Birmingham and West Brom. Read about the new signing at the Riverside below, and click on the box for other football features and galleries.

Massimo Maccarone headed for Middlesbrough knowing that he had a hard act to follow.

The 22-year-old Italian prodigy, who became the first Serie B player to make a senior international appearance in 20 years back in March, arrived in England with a rock-solid pedigree and a goals record for Empoli which perfectly illustrates why Steve McClaren paid a club record £8.15million for his services.

Now he faces the task of proving himself in the Premiership, and if he can do so in the same style as one of his compatriots, both he and his new manager will be more than happy.

Maccarone was just 16 when Fabrizio Ravanelli announced his arrival in English football with a stunning opening-day hat-trick for Boro against Liverpool at the Riverside Stadium.

The White Feather, whose recruitment for £7million from Juventus weeks earlier had set Teesside alight, went on to score on 28 more occasions during the 1996-97 season, but the club's relegation to Division One prompted his exit as he headed for Marseille to bring a painful end to a brief, but thrilling, stay.

Ravanelli's time at Boro was rarely uneventful - he was an outspoken critic who several times opted for the defence of misquotation when he landed himself in hot water - but contrary to popular opinion, his efforts on the pitch are remembered with some warmth by the supporters.

And it is against that background that the pretender to his throne will set about establishing himself at a club where goals were in desperately short supply last season.

The fact that Boro were by no means the only side chasing his signature is a gauge of Maccarone's talent, and he is happy to let his football do the talking.

He won his move to Empoli after scoring 20 times in 28 appearances for Prato, and his 24 in 68 games for the Serie B side, who won promotion at the end of last season, helped him gain senior international recognition.

McClaren was on the England bench at Elland Road in March when Maccarone came on as a late substitute to make his debut and won the penalty from which Vincenzo Montella secured victory for his side.

And if any further evidence was needed, he put David Platt's England Under-21s to the sword at the European Championship finals in Switzerland in May, scoring both goals in a 2-1 win in Basel.

"I first saw Massimo playing for Italy's Under-21s against England at Bradford in March," said McClaren. "He impressed me very much that night.

"The following night, I was at Leeds when he made his full debut as substitute against England. He did well again in that game and it was obvious that they must rate him highly in Italy to not only promote him to the full squad, but actually play him too.

"We followed his progress after that and made a point of watching him during the European Under-21 Championships.

"He was very good in that tournament. Steve Harrison, Steve Round and Ray Train all went out to watch him play and all came back with glowing reports."

Boro's coup in capturing Maccarone has not gone down particularly well in Italy, where Juventus were thought to be favourites to land him but baulked at Empoli's asking price.

Roma too were reported to be ready to launch a late bid, and the confirmation of his move was described by one reputed journalist as "a black day for Italian football".

"When we heard from Empoli that they wanted to sell him, we didn't hesitate," said McClaren.

"What is certain is that we, as a club, have done well to secure the services of a young Italian star who had caught the attention of a number of big clubs.

"All the top clubs in Italy had been looking at Massimo, but we were the club bold enough to make a definite move.

"Massimo is a young striker of real quality. I think it's absolutely magnificent that he'll be playing for Middlesbrough next season."

Despite his talent, it will take time for Maccarone to adapt to the rigours of the English game, but McClaren is confident he will manage the transition.

"Traditionally, Italian forwards are very tough anyway, but we've also assessed his character and spoken to a number of people in the game to ask their opinions on him," he said.

"I think he'll be ideal for the English game. Everyone we asked about Massimo spoke of him in glowing terms.

"I spoke to David Platt, who has come across him quite a bit, and couldn't speak highly enough of him."

Maccarone is the latest in a long series of strikers to try to plug the gap left by Ravanelli when he cut his losses and headed for France.

Croatian Alen Boksic and Colombian Hamilton Ricard have come closest to doing so, although a series of niggling injuries have limited his participation, while the likes of Mikkel Beck, Marco Branca, Brian Deane, Alun Armstrong, Joseph-Desire Job, Noel Whelan, Andy Campbell and most recently, Szilard Nemeth, have enjoyed varying degrees of success.

Boro's newest recruit is the latest to try to make a difference, and McClaren will hope this latest Italian job is as good as the prequel.

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