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Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Roberto Gotta

No mugging the Old Lady

Roberto Gotta

There has to be a reason Juventus, despite not playing the most attractive football in the Serie A, are top of the league with a four point advantage on Milan entering the week leading up to their clash at Turin's Stadio delle Alpi on Saturday evening.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic: An overnight success to the Italian public. (CliveMason/GettyImages)

It may be the simplest reason, and the worst-kept secret in soccer: they have great players and they play to the maximum of their strength.

Which is of course not a secret at all, but more the end product of Juve's situation this year.

When, near the end of last season, it emerged the Turin club's finances were not as healthy as it had seemed, and some form of cost-control would have to be undertaken, it was easy to believe - I did it, too - the 2004-05 campaign would be a transitional one, with a new coach replacing Marcello Lippi and presumably feeling his way around the squad and the Serie A before setting on the task of winning, but the hiring of Fabio Capello, still one of 2004's biggest shocks after all he'd said about Juventus, signalled that something was on.

Despite that, a few days before the Serie A kickoff there was much suspicion Juve was missing some pieces: Del Piero was still struggling and the defence had not been strengthened after last year's goal-leaking form.

Then came the signing of Fabio Cannavaro and Zlatan Ibrahmovic and everything changed. After a couple of awkward seasons with Inter, Cannavaro has proved to be a invigorating force in central defence, paired with Lilian Thuram - whom Lippi had played as a right back too often for the Frenchman's liking - while the Swede has been a surprising star up front.

Do not cringe at my use of the adjective 'surprising': as an accomplished Swedish international and a regular Champions League performer, Ibrahimovic should have been seen as a sure bet, but there's a disgraceful tendency among Italian media - myself included - and fans to think a player is not worth his weight in feathers unless he proves to be able to perform at the highest level, and that level is often seen to be Serie A, although that increasingly looks like a delusional thought.

Ibrahimovic has been playing very well, holding the ball up front, acting as a target man and as a provider, with an impressive arsenal of ball skills for a man his size.

He's sometimes too clever for his own good - 60% of his touches seem to consist of flicks and backheels - but his contribution to Juve's start of the season has been massive.

An interesting tactical development will be David Trezeguet's return from shoulder surgery in a few weeks' time. Juve's main goalscoring threat in the past four years - ok, you can make a case for Nedved, too - is more of an out-and-out striker than Ibrahimovic and his arrival could cost the Bianconeri some variety up front.

Capello could have his choice of two between the Swede, Trezeguet and Del Piero, but the latter's recent revival means leaving him out would also damage Juve's chances.

With the Champions League now going to sleep for a few months, Capello's decision to forgo tinkering with his starting XI may pay off even better, and some of Lippi's ever-presents may well have to bite their lips and keep waiting for some playing time, as they've been doing all year: Tacchinardi, Montero, Iuliano, Tudor, Ferrara the best known among them.

Capello has stuck to his best players, while making inspired substitutions (Zalayeta and Olivera the main contributors off the bench) and the results have proven him right, although the form of the team has slipped in the past couple of weeks and Milan appear to have a slight edge at the moment - but they're four points behind and defeat on Saturday would open a huge gap between the two teams.

Juventus line up before the 1996 European Cup Final: Now a disputed victory. (ShaunBotteril/GettyImages)

There is a dark side, sadly, to Juve's brilliant string of results this year. Their reputation has taken a worldwide hit recently after their long-time team doctor, Riccardo Agricola, was found guilty of supplying performance-enhancing drugs to the players between 1994 and 1998: in 1994, Juve were desperately trying to get out of a nine-year Scudetto drought and they subsequently won the Champions League (1997), the Intercontinental Cup and three Scudettos.

Italians who dislike Juve - and that group usually includes everyone who's not a Juve fan - did not need the Turin trial to believe there was something fishy behind Juve's continuing success, unless dodgy refereeing in some key matches counts as a proof, so Dr Agricola's conviction hardly added to their grievances.

But it doesn't make them any more bearable, of course. This unfortunate situation has bred a culture of suspicion and scepticism - a staple of everyday Italian life - which sometimes casts a shadow on Juve's many triumphs even when there's nothing remotely suspicious about them: the Turin trial, after all, involved events that happened a decade ago and Juve's success has come with the help of great players, not journeymen turned into monsters able to run all day.

Still, Juve carry this stigma of having everything go their way, one way or another. Take Sunday night's win at Bologna, for instance: Juve had most of the possession and missed a couple of good chances, but had Gianluigi Buffon to thank for a string of wonderful saves, which is the reason Juve gave Parma 50 million euros for the right to his services, of course.

With five minutes to go in a tense match, ref Pieri awarded Juve a controversial free kick from the edge of the area - most TV shows and newspapers agree Bologna defender Capuano did not foul Ibrahimovic as much as Ibrahimovic did the same to him in a classic fight for a high ball, and the two-man commission in charge of assigning refs admitted as much on Monday.

Some of the home fans sitting near the Press Box left at the moment Pieri signalled for the free kick, muttering something along the lines of 'he (i.e. the referee) finally found a way to help them'.

The general feeling among the people leaving the stadium afterwards was that you just can't win against the big clubs because they will always find a referee willing to award them a penalty or free kick from a dangerous position or, as some of the more dedicated followers of the conspiracy theory declared on Sunday night, turn a blind eye on some wild tackles because Juve play Milan next Saturday and heaven forbid some of their best players get a suspension.

Pavel Nedved: Match-winner against Bologna on Sunday. (NewPress/GettyImages)

I must point out now I do not endorse those views, I just relate them as I hear them more and more each time, but I am as frustrated and worried as anyone at the erosion of confidence regular fans feel towards football and the two-horse race the Serie A has now worringly become.

So, on Saturday night, while marveling at the sight of the Stadio delle Alpi with actual people sitting in it and not disguised as empty seats, please spare a thought for the other clubs who, with varying degrees of power and wealth - you can hardly count Inter as paupers - play what looks increasingly like an 18-team Serie A1 where referees can be seen to award penalties and dish yellow cards, make decisions and mistakes regardless of the names and reputations of the teams. How cheeky.

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