Pescara out to earn ‘first’ Serie A win


“I try to get my players to play football,” Genoa President Enrico Preziosi snapped, “maybe [Pescara President Daniele] Sebastiani wants his to play volleyball.”

It’s fair to say it has been an eventful return to Serie A for Pescara. Their contest last weekend against Genoa was just the latest in a string of eye-catching matches and incidents involving the Delfini.

Ray Manaj’s late goal at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris earned Pescara a 1-1 draw. It came only after Francesco Zampano had cleared off the line with the use of his arm. It was not spotted by the officials. He avoided a red card and a penalty, although Genoa would later take the lead. By the time Pescara equalised, the home side had been reduced to nine men.

“How can you not see that handball on the line?” Preziosi raged afterwards. “If they want Pescara to stay in Serie A, just say so.”

Zampano, who supplied the cross for Manaj’s strike, was later banned on video evidence for two matches for unsporting behaviour. He maintains the handball was involuntary. Preziosi’s comments, meanwhile, earned the Grifoni a fine.

Days earlier, the Abruzzese club welcomed Torino to the Stadio Adriatico. That time it ended scoreless, but once again they ended the match playing against nine men, as Torino held on for a point.

In fact, Pescara are still seeking for their first win on the pitch this season. Their only triumph came thanks to League officials. Having lost to Sassuolo 2-1 in Round 2, it was discovered the Neroverdi fielded an ineligible player and so the result was reversed.

Yet aside from a 3-0 loss to Lazio the newly promoted club have been competitive. They took a two-goal lead against Napoli in the opening round and were largely the better side, before a second half Neapolitan recovery led to a 2-2 result. They also took the lead against Inter, only to fall to a last minute Mauro Icardi strike.

Massimo Oddo’s unfancied side have showed no fear upon moving up a division. His mantra is one of enterprising football. It’s a young squad, which aside from veterans Hugo Campagnaro, Alberto Aquilani and Simone Pepe, is lacking widespread top-flight experience. The latter duo was signed to add Serie A nous. But its real stars, the likes of Gianluca Caprari and Ledian Memushaj, were part of the squad which earned promotion.

Pescara host Chievo this weekend. On paper they will see it as a good opportunity to record that maiden on-field triumph, but they must be wary. The Veronese side are fourth after six matches and remain as stubborn as ever. It will be a good test for Oddo and his team, who will look to put recent events behind them.

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Pjanic stars as Juventus record big win


Juventus went to Zagreb for their second Champions League clash of the campaign against Dinamo knowing a win was vital. A scoreless home draw with Sevilla was not exactly how they planned to open Group H and with some suspect Serie A performances in between, the pressure was on the Bianconeri to deliver.

When they needed somebody to step up, Miralem Pjanic did just that. He played just 45 minutes, but made a match-winning impact. Taken off at the interval following a first half knock, the Bosnian had already left his mark on the contest. He opened the scoring and then provided an assist for Gonzalo Higuain’s strike. That sent Juve on the road to a comfortable 4-0 victory.

It was one of Pjanic’s best showings in a Black and White shirt. It also served to prove that going forward his best role is not that of a deep-lying midfielder, but alongside that player. He was tasked with sitting deepest in midfield against Inter and was hardly in the game. In truth, it was a poor performance all-round from Juventus. But it was not what they were expecting from the summer addition from Roma, who had minimal impact.

The goal against Dinamo was Pjanic’s second, having also netted against Sassuolo. In both games he was given licence to move further forward and the team reaped the rewards. Pjanic was inside the penalty area to pounce on a defensive error on Tuesday and slot home the opening goal. He then turned provider for Higuain, a sumptuous ball over the top which the Argentine controlled and finished.

Speaking after about his best position, Pjanic said: “People have been asking me that for five years. I put myself at the disposal of the Coach, as I already played in front of the defence at Roma and did well, it all depends on how the team plays and the movements. I also like being closer to the goal so I can set up the strikers.”

Paulo Dybala got off the mark for 2016-17 with a thunderbolt in the second half, before a deflected Dani Alves free kick rounded out the scoring in the final moments. It was Juve’s biggest away win in the competition for two decades and a marker laid down after some shaky performances. They top Group H on goal difference over Sevilla.

Juventus will be hoping to recover the Bosnian for their trip to Empoli this weekend, the last match before the international break. After his starring performance in Zagreb, we are starting to see the real Pjanic in Turin.

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Three points a must for Juventus


Juventus have no option but to win. That’s the opinion of Massimiliano Allegri, who leads his side into battle against Croatian outfit Dinamo Zagreb tonight. Having started the Champions League campaign with a home draw against Sevilla, pressure is rising on Juve: do they have what it takes to compete with Europe’s very best?

“We have to deal with tomorrow in the right way, and above all take home three points with our performance.” That is all, Allegri stresses, Juventus can do at this stage.

The Bianconeri came in for criticism for their goalless performance against Sevilla. They then proceeded to lose at Inter, which further added to the pressure. A convincing midweek win over Cagliari was followed on Saturday by a laborious triumph at Palermo.

Juventus saw big names depart in the summer – Paul Pogba and Alvaro Morata – but spent a lot of money on reinforcing the squad. The introduction of Gonzalo Higuain and Miralem Pjanic, plus additional signings aimed at bolstering squad talent and depth, placed the Bianconeri just behind Europe’s main three clubs in the Champions League reckoning.

Recent performances suggest a squad that is still under construction. “The team definitely didn’t have a good game [against Palermo], but I know that, we all know that, the guys first and foremost,” Allegri said on Monday.

What the coach did also state is that there are unnecessary expectations forming – while also reminding that his team does top Serie A despite the critics. Giorgio Chiellini said after the Sevilla game that Juventus are not Real Madrid and will not win every game with ease. Allegri went further in his pre-match Press conference. “We shouldn’t be distracted by this notion that we have to win every game 3-0, because anyone who thinks that is deluding themselves.”

Juve face a Dinamo outfit which last season defeated Arsenal at the Stadion Maksimir. It was their first victory in the group stage of the Champions League since 1999-2000. The Italian champions clearly come in as the favourites, even if they are dealing with injuries. Paulo Dybala will return to partner Higuain in attack, having been rested on Saturday. Marko Pjaca joined from Dinamo in the summer but is expected to begin on the bench.

The Turin giants have finished second in the group stage for the past two seasons and so know the result is vital. Facing the group’s fourth seeds, they have a chance to kick-start their European campaign.

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Juve’s four-goal signal


It was, Andrea Barzagli said, was “a signal to ourselves.” Juventus were under pressure to respond following a scoreless Champions League draw with Sevilla and loss against Inter on the weekend. Respond they did, crushing Cagliari. It ended 4-0 but could have been more, such was Juve’s dominance throughout the 90 minutes.

“We entered the pitch fired up and with desire to play, which is what we missed against Inter,” the veteran defender said. Criticism was levelled Juve’s way after the Derby d’Italia. Criticism toward Massimiliano Allegri’s selections, and the performance itself. A timid Bianconeri side was outfought and outplayed by Inter. Not often over the past five seasons have those accusations been thrown at Juventus. It wasn’t the case on Wednesday.

There was an element of luck about all four goals scored. Daniele Rugani and Gonzalo Higuain netted rebounds following two fine saves from former Juventus goalkeeper Marco Storari.  Dani Alves’ first for the club came from a well-worked corner, with his strike helped by a deflection. The late fourth again involved a Storari save, with the last touch coming off Rossoblu defender Luca Ceppitelli.

While that was the case, Juve certainly had control of the contest. They had 14 shots on target to Cagliari’s zero, with Storari kept busy for the duration. The 39-year-old produced a number of key saves. Higuain struck the woodwork.

“It’s a good answer to the rather excessive criticism of our performance on Sunday against Inter,” the coach stated.

The result also sends Juventus back to the top of Serie A, having slipped behind Napoli on the weekend. This was, on paper, the easiest of their five opening matches. Juve’s previous four had been against sides which finished inside the top eight last season. They have four wins to their name. It’s something Allegri spoke about earlier in the week, stating they are above where they expected to be and based on performances.

Miralem Pjanic was released from his midfield shackles to have more of an influence on proceedings than in Milan. Allegri was also able to give seasonal debuts to Rugani, Hernanes and Neto – who came on at half-time for the injured Gianluigi Buffon – while Marko Pjaca had an extended run compared to his opening substitute appearances.

Having shaken off the criticism, Juve go to Palermo this Saturday. The Sicilians are coming off their first win of the campaign. Following that is a Champions League clash at Dinamo Zagreb. It’s an important week for Allegri’s men, who offered a reminder of why they are still the team to beat.

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Milik enjoying a fine start to life in Naples


It’s too early for Napoli fans to boast ‘Gonzalo who?’, but after the turmoil of his summer move to Juventus, there appears a light at the end of the tunnel. That light is Arkadiusz Milik, the Polish striker who has opened his Neapolitan career with a bang.

The €35 million signing from Ajax already looks at home at the Stadio San Paolo. He has notched four goals in two appearances there. After a 15 minute brace to open the scoring against Milan, Milik turned last Saturday’s match with Bologna around in just 13 minutes.

His first goal was superb. Milik latched on to a perfectly weighted Marek Hamsik pass to net with his first touch. The 22-year-old was then on hand to drill in a low shot at the near post to make the score 3-1. With that brace – his second in as many matches following the Champions League triumph at Dynamo Kiev in midweek – Napoli returned to the top of Serie A.

They last occupied the position during 2015-16, when Higuain’s goals offered a sight at the Scudetto. That was snuffed out by Juventus, but they hope to be around the mark once more this term.

Not that Maurizio Sarri is getting carried. “The economic difference with Juventus is so vast, not just for us but every Italian competitor, that they’ll have the kind of campaign that Bayern Munich have in Germany, PSG in France and Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain.” The boss went on to say that Napoli would need the Bianconeri to mess up in order to claim the Scudetto.

He was full of praise for Milik’s start to the season, stating: “I was surprised by Milik’s scoring rate, but not by his performances, because I knew he was very strong.” However, Sarri urged caution and patience with the youngster. “He cannot be compared to the top players and must be given the time and space to grow.”

Yet Milik and Jose Callejon are Napoli’s in-form men in front of goal, sharing nine goals between them in Serie A. The pair will be important on Wednesday as the Partenopei face a tricky away trip to Genoa. The Grifoni are coming off a first loss of the season, against Sassuolo, after opening with two victories. Napoli have a good recent record in this fixture, going unbeaten in the previous four trips – including three wins.

Another triumph at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris will have Napoli well positioned ahead of winnable matches against Chievo and Atalanta. Given Milik’s start in the blue shirt, expect him to play an important role.

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Icardi strikes to ignite Inter’s season


He has done it again. Six goals in seven games against Juventus is now seven from eight. It’s a phenomenal record Mauro Icardi has acquired against the Bianconeri, stemming from his Sampdoria days. And in the context on Inter’s season, his goal on Sunday was perhaps the most important.

There was already talk of the sack hanging over Frank de Boer’s head. The Dutchman only entered the piece late in pre-season, as a replacement for Roberto Mancini. When the Italian left, the former Ajax man said he would need time to work with the squad. But results weren’t good and media reports were merciless.

A solitary – last-gasp – victory over Pescara, after a loss at Chievo and draw with Palermo, was not considered a good enough start. Worse was to come last Thursday, as Inter embarrassingly collapsed at home to Israeli side Hapoel Be’er Sheeva in the Europa League. A loss to Juventus would potentially spell the end of de Boer’s short reign.

With new Brazilian signing Gabigol watching on from the stands, it was a better Inter from the outset against their old foe. Other summer additions Joao Mario and Ever Banega looked comfortable in midfield, while the defence restricted the champions. The closest either side came in the first half was an Icardi curler which nicked the outside the post.

When Stephan Lichtsteiner popped up at the back post to deliver a sucker-punch just past the hour mark it looked like another long evening at the office for de Boer and co. But Inter, to their credit, have showed fighting spirit during this inconsistent start. Their three prior goals – all scored by Icardi – arrived after they fell behind, and none earlier than the 72nd minute.

Icardi climbed highest to head in the equaliser and break that mark by four minutes, a reward for a strong performance. The Argentine turned provider with 11 minutes to go, with Inter capitalising on a rare Juve defensive error as Ivan Perisic came off the bench to head past Gianluigi Buffon.

The captain hopes the 2-1 win can spark the Nerazzurri campaign. “Juventus are one of my favourite teams to score goals against. However, we can’t just play one good game. We must continue like this.”

De Boer’s side face winnable matches against Empoli in midweek and then Bologna, before a trip to Roma. Icardi said on Monday consistency is the key to Inter enjoying a fruitful season. Ensuring the Juventus performance is not a one-off is imperative.

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Francesco Totti – and Mother Nature – comes to Roma’s rescue


Cometh the hour, cometh Roma’s King. Francesco Totti has done it again, converting an injury time penalty to help Roma overcome the stubborn resistance of Sampdoria. With his goal, Totti continued a run of netting in every Serie A season since 1994-95.

While the Giallorossi were indebted to Totti holding his nerve from the spot, they also had Mother Nature to thank.

All seemed to be going to plan when Mohamed Salah opened the scoring after only eight minutes. But nobody told Sampdoria. A fantastic Luis Muriel volley levelled the score, while Fabio Quagliarella turned the ball home from a corner to give Marco Giampaolo’s team the lead.

By that point, four minutes before half-time, a deluge had hit Rome’s Stadio Olimpico. The rain pelted down as boos rang around the stadium at the half-time whistle, with Roma perhaps lucky to only be a goal down. The jeers subsided, but the rain did not. Such was the ferocity the second half was delayed by 90 minutes. Football was unplayable on a sodden surface.

It worked to Roma’s benefit. Totti and Edin Dzeko were introduced once the action got back underway and it was a totally different game. Dzeko got the equaliser just past the hour mark and were it not for Samp goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano, Roma would have cruised to victory.

Sampdoria hotly contested the penalty decision, to no avail. Milan Skriniar was adjudged to have brought down Dzeko. Up stepped Totti. “I thought he would miss the penalty,” Roma President James Pallotta said. “I thought this because it was wet. I wouldn’t have had any worry if it had been dry.” Totti sent the impressive Viviano the wrong way to secure the points.

Alessandro Florenzi said the break helped Roma refocus. “We got it into our heads that we needed to go back out with intensity, which was what changed the match.” Conversely, Muriel says the long delay punished Sampdoria, who had looked the better side in the first half. “The break was not good for us, Roma came back out on the pitch better.”

Roma must use this victory to push forward. They got out of jail and after the Champions League exit, begin their Europa League campaign against Viktoria Plzen this week. They still have hopes of toppling Juventus to secure the Scudetto, but must improve a defence which was leakier than some sections of the Olimpico. Totti, and the rain, cannot always bail them out of a jam.

De Boer out to claim maiden Serie A triumph


It was the sort of situation harking back to the days of mid-1990s madness. Roberto Mancini had led Inter back to European competition – and had the Nerazzurri top of Serie A for a number of weeks – but instead of continuing the charge this term he abruptly left weeks before the start of the new campaign.

Enter Dutchman Frank de Boer. But with so few days to prepare in a new league it’s little wonder Inter went into the international break with a solitary point to their name. A loss away to Chievo was followed by a come-from-behind draw against Palermo.

Inter were aggressive on the transfer market last season in their bid to return to prominence. That strategy was amplified this term thanks to investment from the new owners, the Chinese-led Suning Group. Ever Banega was signed on a free transfer from Sevilla, but they spent big on Antonio Candreva, Gabigol and Joao Mario. The summer signings add to a squad which, on paper at least, should be challenging strongly for a Champions League position.

They are already five points behind Juventus and three adrift of both Roma and Napoli. But what de Boer needs, according to former President Massimo Moratti, is time. “He must be given at least another month before we can pass judgment on his work.”

That judgment will swing in his favour if Inter are to get off and running. They peppered Palermo and then went behind to a sucker-punch. It’s the sort of error which must be cut out.

Up next is Pescara. The newly promoted club in theory should not pose much of a problem. But the Abruzzese outfit has already welcomed Napoli to the Stadio Adriatico and claimed a point. The opening round match ended 2-2, only after Napoli fought back from two down. Pescara sit fourth on four points, although their position is somewhat deceptive. Sassuolo defeated the Delfini in Round 2, but fielded an ineligible player which meant the result was reversed. Still, Massimo Oddo’s team showed against Napoli they are not afraid of big names.

But a win is important for de Boer. It will help get an early monkey off his back, even if he knows the situation he walked into was not easy. It was always going to take time. De Boer has had the opportunity to work with the squad this week and may introduce some new signings into the team as early as this weekend. One where Inter hope to kick-start their season.

Italy start World Cup qualifying with important victory


It wasn’t a night Giorgio Chiellini will want to remember. But for Giampiero Ventura, Italy’s 3-1 win over Israel was an important first step on the road to Russia.

They took a 2-0 lead in Haifa on the half-hour mark thanks to Graziano Pelle and Antonio Candreva. Then came Chiellini’s nightmare. Already booked for a foul after a mistake, another error opened the door for Israel’s Tal Ben Haim to chip Gianluigi Buffon and get the home side back in the contest.

Chiellini’s ‘off night’, as he later put it, was compounded with a second yellow card – his first dismissal in 90 Italian appearances. It left Israel sensing the chance to pounce and forced Italy to hold on. Much to Ventura’s satisfaction, the 10 men weathered the storm. “We worked as a team, suffered as a team and won as a team.” The win was sealed by Ciro Immobile’s goal.

According to the striker, Ventura told him earlier in the day he would find the back of the net and he did so emphatically. The pair worked closely at Torino in two different spells and so know each other well. It’s the same for Angelo Ogbonna, drafted in to help the defence following the red card rather than Daniele Rugani or Davide Astori. Ogbonna was Ventura’s captain at Torino until 2013.

Marco Verratti showed why hopes have been pinned on him to pick up the mantle left by Andrea Pirlo. It was his first 90 minute showing since February and despite battling a knock picked up in the second half, he was impressive in possession at the heart of midfield and without the ball. He will be a key player for Italy during this qualification period.

A tricky night at the office, but three important points for the Azzurri. That’s because Spain visit Turin next month. The clash of the heavyweights will set up Group G, with only top spot automatically going to Russia. Ventura will have a defensive decision to make in the wake of Chiellini’s red card.

After eliminating Spain at Euro 2016, Italy cannot have any fear. A win opens the door, with fixtures away to Macedonia and Liechtenstein closing out 2016. Should they get past Spain then Italy can target 12 points by Christmas.

That’s why starting with a victory meant so much, even if they did it the tough way in typical Italian fashion. Ventura got his maiden Azzurri triumph and now the team can build towards next month’s mouth-watering encounter.

Verratti must become a key Azzurri figure


It was a substitution the home fans were pleased to see. While Italy were losing in Giampiero Ventura’s first match in charge against France, and would go on to lose 3-1, the arrival of Marco Verratti just past the hour mark was a welcome return.

The midfielder had been forced to miss much of the 2015-16 campaign and subsequently Euro 2016 through injury. It was a blow for the Italians, who nonetheless performed well in the tournament.

His entrance on Thursday was positive for Ventura and the new Azzurri era. And well-timed. As Verratti returned, Daniele De Rossi sustained an injury which rules him out of tonight’s opening World Cup qualifier against Israel. Verratti, so long threatening to break into the Nazionale limelight, now has a fantastic opportunity.

Since his swashbuckling displays for Pescara which led to a risky, but rewarding move to Paris Saint-Germain in 2012, Verratti has been seen as the brightest young talents in Italy. He played twice at World Cup 2014, but Andrea Pirlo’s international u-turn under new boss Antonio Conte meant Verratti had to bide his time. He made five Euro 2016 qualifying appearances and with Pirlo out of favour, only injury kept Verratti from a starting spot.

With both De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio absent, this is Verratti’s time to shine. In Ventura, Italy have a boss not afraid to give younger players a chance, something some past tacticians have been guilty of. As Ventura said on Sunday, while Conte took over on the back of three Scudetto triumphs at Juventus he had ‘victories’ of his own at Torino: seeing budding talents progress to Europe’s biggest clubs and to the national team.

The stars are aligning. And Verratti, who has won championships in France and made it to the latter stages of the Champions League, is ready for Italy’s upcoming test. It’s a difficult group which also includes Spain and fellow Euro 2016 qualifiers Albania. The opening match away to Israel is tricky, but also a must-win with La Furia Roja visiting Turin next month.

The 23-year-old has taken on responsibility in France and is ready to do so for the Azzurri. “The role I play in is not important. What matters is doing what the coach asks of me so I can do what’s best for the team. I do like Ventura’s way of understanding football.”

Always appearing at consummate ease in possession, Verratti has the quality to add to what many would suggest is a low tally of just 16 Azzurri caps. He can become their central lynchpin.

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