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Juventus make a molehill out of a mountain
With three rounds of the season to go, Juve's 'Himalayan' lead has been whittled down from 14 points to three. James Richardson rounds up the latest stuff of Fabio Capello's nightmares Thirty-three minutes into Saturday's round of games, the frame of the Juventus dugout suddenly toppled backwards at the Stadio delle Alpi. Spookily, at almost exactly the same moment Milan were taking the lead down at Messina and, with Juve trailing in Turin, the Old Lady's lead was down to just two points. Her substitutes gazed bewildered at the blue sky where their dugout roof used to be. Meanwhile Fabio Capello stared at the ground with the air of a man who knows a nasty omen when he sees one.
This season of dreams is fast turning into a nightmare for Capello. The Himalayan lead of 14 points over Milan his side enjoyed in February has been whittled away to just three - the equivalent of a small hillock in the Cotswolds. After a record 14 wins in their first 15 matches this season, Juve have now won a grand total of one of their last seven (against Livorno) and their rivals are shaping up to whip the title from under their noses. Did someone slip Fabio a Coaching The Keegan Way DVD for Christmas, or is something else afoot in Turin?
Chief suspect for the collapse is actually Capello himself. For the first five months of the season, the manager's insistence on the same starting XI was hailed as yet another stroke of square-jawed genius as Juve rocketed way ahead of the pack. However, since February we've seen the downside: the team have been moving with all the pace of a crippled snail in treacle and are, in the Italian parlance, "boiled". Opinion is now swinging against Fabio, who continues to neglect the fresher legs on the bench. For example, this Saturday he stuck with the hopeless Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Jonathan Zebina instead of Alex Del Piero and Federico Balzaretti.
Of course, Juve's problems don't end there. There's also the knock-on effect of their Champions League exit, which was also largely provoked by their general state of exhaustion. There are rumours too of a sizeable split in the Old Lady's dressing room, although evidence for this is scarce as Juve have drawn their wagons in a circle with a hasty press blackout.
Still, the Gazzetta dello Sport reckon they've got all the proof they need just from watching Capello's sideline reactions this weekend. The week before, Fabio Cannavaro's late, late equaliser at Cagliari saw Don Fabio switch into David Pleat mode and bounce dementedly down the sideline, but the same trick from David Trezeguet against Lazio failed to bring the barest flicker of a smile.
It's an interesting theory, but then Capello had some cause to feel short-changed on Saturday. Juventus looked livelier than they had in a long while, but their repeated breaks forward were thwarted time and time again by Lazio keeper Angelo Peruzzi. Thus it was the visitors who took the lead, with Goran Pandev collecting a long ball from Valon Behrami and cutting it back to Tommaso Rocchi in the box, who fired it straight between the legs of Juve's reserve keeper Christian Abbiati.
Five minutes later Lazio struck again when Ousmane Dabo cannoned in a loose ball from well outside the area, but an attempt by another Lazio player to divert the shot in front of Abbiati meant the goal was (correctly) disallowed for offside. Dabo then got sent off for dissent, and instead of being two goals up Lazio found themselves a man down. The Old Lady subsequently shifted up a gear, but with the 36 year old former Juve star Peruzzi in career-best form, it wasn't until four minutes from time that they finally found an equaliser. David Trezeguet and Pavel Nedved exchanged passes over the heads of the exhausted Lazio defence before the Frenchman's delicate volley tipped the ball past the onrushing goalkeeper. Dramatically, with just 30 seconds left on the clock, Zlatan Ibrahimovic then had the chance to grab all three points, but fired wide - much to no one's surprise.
With Milan coming back from a goal down to win 3-1 at Messina (in an angry match featuring four red cards and injuries for Cafu, Alessandro Nesta, Kaká, Andriy Shevchenko and Massimo Ambrosini ahead of Wednesday's Barcelona game), just one victory now separates the two title rivals. Which means Juve need two wins and a draw from their last three games. For a side that's failed to win any of their last seven official games, that sounds a tall order.
Juve face Siena away, Palermo at home and finish at Reggina. However, Milan's victory over Messina means the Sicilians are odds on to be the final team going down, so Reggina may have nothing left to play for by the final day.
Aside from their semi-final with Barça, Milan have Livorno at home, Parma away and finish at the San Siro against Roma. Livorno have just ended their seven-game losing streak but have nothing left to play for, while Parma have already shut up shop for the summer after completing a miracle escape from the drop. So far, so good. Roma are a different matter, however - the giallorossi's draw with Sampdoria this weekend means Fiorentina have taken a three-point lead in their race for fourth place, so chances are Roma will still be fighting for that Champions League place come the final day.
However it plays out, it's going to be tight. The next key match is Sunday afternoon's visit by Juve to Siena which we're showing live on Bravo at 1.30pm. The hosts have an unhappy reputation as a Juventus franchise, since half of their squad originated on La Signora's books. Naturally there are suspicions about how much resistance they'll offer; suspicions that have been hotly refuted by Siena's manager, Luigi De Canio (whose agent, as it happens, is the son of Juve's director general), who has been quick to point out that Siena are not mathematically safe from the drop. Only time will tell and we shall see - will the bench tumble again? Will black cats cross Juve's path on the way to the ground? Or can Fabio Capello's side finally seal its 29th title? Join me next week for another instalment of this nerve-jangling saga.
“Juventus is a very different team to the others which I have played in here in Europe. They are a team with a winning mentality which has helped to secure their success over the years.” The most recent of these successes was the victory over Werder Bremen on Tuesday evening when Emerson fired an instinctive shot in the dying minutes to secure a 2-1 win for Juventus and qualification for the quarter-finals. “I hadn't realised that the 'keeper had lost the ball, because I had my back to the goal, then I heard Fabio (Cannavaro) call my name: "Puma, Puma!", I turned, I took a shot and thankfully it went in.” Emerson Ferreira da Rosa arrived at Juventus in the summer of 2004 and in his first season helped the bianconeri to their 28th Scudetto. A combative central midfielder, he is always at the centre of the game; breaking up the opposition’s rhythm and supplying the first ball to the Juventus attack. Capello is certainly a big admirer of the Brasilian whom he brought with him from Roma: “His greatest quality is the ability to protect the ball. He always knows where to position himself on the pitch and has huge tactical awareness” “When I arrived I knew the responsibility that awaited me, and that was to always win.” It is this attitude and self-belief that makes Emerson such a key player in the Juventus squad. His leadership and competitiveness have helped the bianconeri to the top of Serie A this season and, who knows, may help them in their quest for European glory as well…
Capello on Arsenal
Fabio Capello spoke today about the Champions League draw that sees Juventus face Arsenal. "When only eight teams are left, it's difficult to have a preference as they are all strong clubs. The game against Arsenal is the draw of the round. Arsenal are a great team: it's not easy to beat Real Madrid and they managed it, they also defended their advantage very well at home. They have a group of young players that are gaining experience and could be dangerous."
Vieira: “I had a feeling that this might happen”
The draw for the Champions league quarter-finals has been made. In Paris this afternoon Juventus were drawn against Arsenal. The first leg will be played away from home at Highbury on 28th March, whilst the return leg, at the Delle Alpi, will be played on 5th April. Arsenal – currently fifth in the Premier League – will present a similar challenge to the one Juventus faced against Werder Bremen. Strong both technically and on the counter-attack, they play at a high-tempo preferring to keep the ball on the ground and pass through the opposition than resorting to long-balls. Their star striker, Thierry Henry, will be familiar to Juventus fans from his brief sojourn at the club before his transfer to the Gunners in 1999. The ex-bianconero helped to secure Arsenal’s qualification to the quarter-finals having scored the decisive goal against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. Aside from Henry, Arsenal boast the talents of Reyes, Ljunberg and Fabregas, who have been at the forefront of an unbeaten European campaign that has seen them concede only two goals so far. Domestically, Arsenal have been one of the dominant forces in English football for the last ten years. Since the arrival of their manager Arsene Wenger in 1996, they have won the FA Cup three times and the Premiership four times. When they last won the title in 2003/2004, they played the entire season undefeated, earning them the title ‘The Invincibles’. The draw will also present an interesting challenge to Patrick Vieira. The bianconeri midfielder left the Gunners this summer, having spent nine years there. For many, Arsenal have been in a period of transition since his departure, seeking to fill the defensive-midfield role that he dominated whilst at the club. Speaking after the draw, Vieira said: “At times fate can surprise you, in fact I had a feeling this might happen. Obviously it will be a very personal challenge for me, particularly to go back to Highbury as the opposition, but putting my emotions to one side, I can only think about the fact that we have to win.”