Italian football emerges from virus crisis with cup semis in balance

Juventus’ home clash with AC Milan on Friday was supposed be the first competitive match played in Italy since the country became Europe’s COVID-19 epicenter. (AP)
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Updated 11 June 2020

Italian football emerges from virus crisis with cup semis in balance

ROME: This week’s Italian Cup semifinal, second leg matches were set to bring football back to a nation emerging from the coronavirus crisis, but with two days until the scheduled kick-off the two matches are still awaiting government approval.
Juventus’ home clash with AC Milan on Friday was supposed be the first competitive match played in Italy since the country became Europe’s COVID-19 epicenter, and the start of what the football authorities hope will be a return to normality.
More than 34,000 people on the peninsula have died because of the virus since the start of the crisis, with the vast majority in northern regions like Piedmont and Lombardy which host Juve and Milan.
However, although the virus still persists, Italy began to gradually emerge from a stringent lockdown last month and has been slowly moving back toward regular life since, with the return of football pitched as the latest sign that the worst should be over.
Public broadcaster RAI has already announced its coverage of the two last four encounters, with Napoli v Inter Milan scheduled for Saturday.
However. while Health Minister Roberto Speranza on Wednesday confirmed the dates for the semis and the June 17 final in Rome, he only said that the government was “leaning toward authorizing” the last three matches of the competition.
Speranza’s comments at the Italian Senate come just as it appeared that weeks of squabbling between Italy’s football authorities and the government had been left behind, with what will likely be a large, sport-starved TV audience ready for the two matches behind closed doors.
Should, as expected, Friday’s match take place fans will see a tie delicately poised at 1-1 following February’s entertaining first leg at the San Siro, which saw the ‘Rossoneri’ leading until Cristiano Ronaldo scored a stoppage time penalty to take a draw and an away goal back to Turin.

Milan will be without injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who had sparked the seven-time European champions into life after returning in December, as they attempt to beat Juve in Turin for the first time since 2011.
Forward Samu Castillejo, who said he was robbed at gunpoint in Milan on Tuesday, and defender Theo Hernandez are suspended.
Milan coach Stefano Pioli will likely point to Ante Rebic, who had scored seven goals in nine games before football succumbed to the virus, as the goal threat.
They will be helped by Wednesday’s ruling which eliminates extra-time in the event of deadlock after 90 minutes for both last-four second legs and next week’s final.
The cup is more of a priority for fallen giants Milan, whose last major honor came nine years ago, than for Juventus, who later this month resume a tight Serie A title tussle with Lazio.
However Juve coach Maurizio Sarri told Sky on Wednesday that Juve were “lucky” to have the cup, Serie A and Champions League seasons played at separate intervals as they chase European glory to go with their domestic dominance.
“We can focus on our targets one at a time, and this could be an advantage for us,” he said.
“But we’ll only know once we’re out on the pitch because this is a very odd situation. After such a long break we’ve not even been able to play proper matches in training.”
Sarri is reportedly wary of risking players who are not 100 percent fit, and will leave out Gonzalo Higuain for his starting line-up.
However with Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala and Douglas Costa likely to start, goals should not be a problem.
Whoever comes out on top will face either Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan or Napoli, who hold a 1-0 lead ahead of Saturday’s second leg in Naples.
The cup is Napoli’s best chance of European football next season following a tumultuous campaign that has featured dressing room disputes and the sacking of Carlo Ancelotti.
Inter are off the pace in the title race and in search of their first trophy since winning the cup in 2011.

Fixtures (pending government approval) (All times GMT)
Semi-final, second legs

Friday
Juventus v AC Milan (2000) (first leg 1-1)

Saturday
Napoli v Inter Milan (2000) (first leg 1-0)

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Atletico catching all the breaks in Champions League

Updated 12 August 2020

Atletico catching all the breaks in Champions League

  • A victory against Leipzig will put Atletico back in the semifinals for the first time since 2017

LISBON: So far so good for Atletico Madrid in the quest for their first Champions League title.

Diego Simeone’s team have caught all the breaks going into the decisive final-eight tournament in Lisbon.

Old foes Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo are gone. They drew Leipzig instead of a more traditional powerhouse for the quarterfinals. And their rival lost its top player after Timo Werner left for Chelsea. Even when things went wrong and the squad was hit by COVID-19, Atletico avoided the worst as only two players were infected and they could still make the trip to Portugal.

Things have been looking good for Simeone and his players.

A victory against Leipzig on Thursday will put Atletico back in the semifinals for the first time since it was eliminated by Ronaldo’s Madrid in the last four in 2017. Ronaldo and Madrid had defeated Atletico in the final in 2014 and 2016, and also ended the rival’s run in the quarterfinals in 2015.

Ronaldo again was Atletico’s nemesis last season after joining Juventus. Atletico lost to the Italian team in the round of 16 after Ronaldo scored a hat trick in the decisive second leg in Turin.

But this time Ronaldo and Juventus were eliminated by Lyon in the last 16, the same stage in which Madrid were knocked out of the tournament by Manchester City. Only two past champions are still left in the competition — Barcelona and Bayern Munich — and they play against each other in the opposite side of the draw, meaning Atletico could only meet one of them in the final.

Leipzig are a relative newcomer to the Champions League, having reached the group stage only twice. This is the first time they made it to the knockout round. They eliminated Tottenham in the round of 16, but now they won't count on top scorer Werner, who did not extend his contract by a few weeks to finish the season with the German club before moving to Chelsea.

Atletico stunned defending European champion Liverpool in the last 16, advancing after a 3-2 win in England.

“The game against Liverpool will go down in history and was one of the best we’ve had in a long time,” Atletico striker Diego Costa said. “It gave fans high expectations and we will give our best to try to meet those expectations. Hopefully we will play well and luck will stay on our side.”

Costa said Atletico will not take Leipzig lightly despite  the rival’s lack of experience in international competitions.

“They are very strong on the ball and know what they are about,” he said. “They have made it to the quarterfinals and have no pressure.”

There was a scare within Atletico this week when it announced two positive test results for COVID-19 among the group that was traveling to Lisbon. There were concerns that an outbreak within the club could have affected the team’s participation in the tournament in Portugal, but new tests showed that only Ángel Correa and Sime Vrsaljko were infected and the squad could travel to Lisbon.

Vrsaljko was not even going to play because he is nursing an injury, while Correa isn't among Atletico’s top stars even though he led the team in assists this season.

After coming agonizingly close recently, Atletico hope the breaks will keep going their way and that they  will finally get to lift the coveted European trophy.