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Allegri: Juventus fell asleep at half-time

Massimiliano Allegri noted “nothing is ever certain in football” after Juventus moved four points clear of Napoli in the Serie A title race with a dramatic Derby d’Italia win at Inter.

After taking an early lead, Juve fell behind 2-1 against their rivals, who were reduced to 10 men by Matias Vecino’s 18th-minute red card, in the second half.

But two goals in the last four minutes turned the match around. Juan Cuadrado’s cross deflected in off Inter defender Milan Skriniar, with Gonzalo Higuain then heading home the winner from a Paulo Dybala free-kick.

Juve now hold the advantage as they hunt a seventh straight Scudetto, although Napoli – 1-0 victors in Turin last weekend – can maintain the pressure by winning away to Fiorentina on Sunday.

Allegri, who was dismissed for encroaching on to the field in the aftermath of Higuain’s winner, knows the heat will be one in the closing run of the season.

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“It was a wonderful evening of football between two teams who needed to win and went all out,” Allegri said to Mediaset Premium after a breathless finale at San Siro on Saturday.

“We were aggressive and played well throughout the first half, but we fell asleep in the dressing room [at half-time] and ended up behind.

“We kept putting crosses in when we should have passed it around the box to tire them out. Inter played well, but got tired in the end, crumbled physically and we took advantage.

“It’s another step towards the Scudetto, even if it remains very difficult. Nothing is ever certain in football. I knew it would be tough and in the final four rounds there is always more pressure than when you play in September.

“Even a side with great mental strength will have moments where they lose confidence. Fortunately, the lads have found it again and we turned it around.”

Gonzalo Higuain Juventus Inter Serie A

Higuain’s first goal since mid-March gave Juventus a boost in the Scudetto battle against his former club Napoli, who struck a 90th-minute winner in last weekend’s meeting of the top two.

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“This is football,” the striker told Mediaset Premium . “We lost at the last minute [against Napoli], but this time we turned it around with hunger, pride, thirst for victory.

“We will fight to the death to win. Inter played a great game, and were a man down, but it was fundamental to win and there are another three to go. It’s a great confidence boost.”

Juve face Bologna, Roma and Verona in their final three matches of the Serie A campaign, while Napoli take on Torino, Sampdoria and Crotone after Sunday’s clash with Fiorentina, leaving little room for error from either side. 


More pressure on Napoli than Juventus, claims Allegri

Massimiliano Allegri claims the pressure will be on Napoli in their showdown with his Serie A leaders Juventus in Turin on Sunday.

The Partenopei take on the title-holders at Allianz Stadium seeking to narrow the four-point gap between second and first place, with four further matches to come in the league after this round.

Addressing a news conference, Allegri pointed out the fact that Juve have a greater margin for error, and can also deal a major blow to the hopes of Maurizio Sarri’s team if they come out on top this weekend. 

“We’re in better psychological shape than Napoli. It’s very simple, tomorrow a mini-league begins of five games, we have a four-point advantage,” he said.

“There are other points available to win the title. It’ll certainly be important for Serie A, but it won’t be decisive.

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“We must play with cool heads, because it is far more decisive for Napoli than it is for us.”

Allegri dismissed rumours suggesting forward Paulo Dybala is struggling with injury and could be left out of the crunch fixture.

“Dybala is in good shape, I don’t understand why he shouldn’t be,” the coach said.

And the former AC Milan boss is also backing striker Gonzalo Higuain, who has not scored since a 2-0 win over Atalanta on March 14, to make an impact.

“Gonzalo Higuain has these peaks and troughs over a season,” Allegri said. “He’s in great shape and I think tomorrow he will be decisive.”

Napoli’s status as the only legitimate challengers to Juve’s crown, and their attractive style of play, has seen the work done at Stadio San Paolo flatteringly described as ‘Sarrismo’, in honour of the coach.

Allegri, though, does not feel that renders his own achievements at Juve unappreciated. 

“I am not jealous that there’s nobody talking about Allegrismo,” he said. “I am glad that after so many years of hard work, Sarri has reached the level he deserves.

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“Sarri is making Napoli play well and getting the best out of the characteristics of his players. At the end of the day, all coaches have one objective: to win. The strategy and the way of getting there is not the same. 

“If I usually find two open doors and one day they are closed, I have to find another strategy.”

According to Allegri, Stefano Sturaro and Mattia De Sciglio are the only Juve players unavailable for the contest, due to tendon and foot problems respectively. 


Forget Higuain & Dybala! Pep favourite Douglas Costa can destroy Napoli’s title dream

Douglas Costa found his first few weeks at Bayern Munich difficult. The former Shakhtar Donetsk ace was now at a massive club in an unfamiliar city where they spoke a different language.

However, Pep Guardiola helped him not only settle but realise his potential. The Bayern boss told Costa he could become a difference-maker in Munich.

“He also told me about [Lionel] Messi,” the Brazilian revealed. “He said ‘not to become Messi, because there’s only one Messi.’

“‘But you can do other things, things nobody else can do.'”

Guardiola wasn’t wrong. Imbued with the Catalan’s confidence, Costa took the Bundesliga by storm, racking up 10 assists (and one goal), in his first seven appearances.

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Unsurprisingly, he was unable to sustain such a remarkable ratio but by the end of his first season in Germany, Costa had established himself as one of the most feared wingers in world football.

Guardiola was in no doubt that a star had been born. “He’ll be a top, top player for years to come,” the former Barcelona boss enthused.

However, everything changed when Guardiola departed for Manchester City. Costa was optimistic that he would continue to develop under new coach Carlo Ancelotti but the pair never clicked.

So dramatic was Costa’s dip in form under the Italian, that Bayern agreed to loan him to Juventus last summer for €6 million, with a view to a permanent transfer at the end of the 2017-18 campaign for an additional €40m.

Club president Uli Hoeness was happy to see the back of the Brazilian.

“Costa didn’t work out because he was quite a mercenary whose character we didn’t like”, he told Frankenpost last August.

Douglas Costa Guardiola PS

However, Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge was unsure about letting him go right until the end.

“I always found him an interesting player,” he admitted. “All he would have to do is reach the same level again that he was playing at during his first season with us.”

In the end, though, Costa was allowed to leave. It, initially, looked like a shrewd decision, as the 27-year-old initially struggled to adapt to Serie A.

However, Juve boss Massimiliano Allegri kept the faith and has slowly helped Costa get back to his brilliant best.

Indeed, going into Sunday’s top-of-the-table clash with Napoli, Costa is the one Juventus attacker in excellent form. 

Paulo Dybala was so poor in the midweek draw at Crotone that he might not even start in Turin, while fellow Argentine Gonzalo Higuain has now gone six games without a goal in all competitions.

Of course, both men have the requisite talent to get back among the goals against Napoli but if they do, Costa will probably be their creator.

He has set up Juve’s last four goals, coming off the bench to rack up a hat-trick of assists in last weekend’s 3-0 win over Sampdoria before teeing up compatriot Alex Sandro for the opener at Crotone on Wednesday.

All of this, remember, has come after he absolutely terrorised his international team-mate Marcelo for 90 minutes of Juventus’ 3-1 victory over Real Madrid in the second leg of their absorbing Champions League quarter-final second leg at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Douglas Costa Juventus Real Madrid

That night in the Spanish capital, he was the Douglas Costa of Bayern, burning one player after another with his blistering pace before peppering the penalty area with dangerous crosses (one of which led to Blaise Matuidi making it 3-0).

Of course, Napoli have their own attacking threats. No player has created more chances in Serie A this season than Lorenzo Insigne (90), who was instrumental in the Partenopei’s stirring come-from-behind victory over Udinese, a result which saw Maurizio Sarri’s side draw to within four points of Juve at the summit of the standings.

However, there is no overlooking the fact that Napoli been flagging in recent weeks, a product of the fact that Sarri has rarely rotated his key players, combined with the strain of trying to sate the Neapolitan public’s thirst for a first Scudetto since 1990.

Dries Mertens, in particular, has looked increasingly jaded of late, as underlined by his dismal return of just two goals from his last 10 outings. 

Serie A assists PS

Costa, by contrast, is fresh and firing on all cylinders. He has started just 15 games this term – Mertens and Insigne have started 31 apiece – and Juve are now reaping the benefits.

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There is arguably no more effective player in the league right now. 

Only Luis Alberto (12) has more assists than Costa (10), while only Alejandro Gomez (94) has completed more dribbles (91). Those are remarkable figures for a player that has amassed just 1498 minutes of game time.

What it underlines, though, is what Guardiola used to tell Costa on a daily basis. He can be one of the game’s great difference-makers – just for Juventus now, rather than Bayern.


Real Madrid president to blame for Higuain exit, says striker’s father

Gonzalo Higuain’s father says Florentino Perez for was the reason for his son’s Real Madrid exit, convinced the club president did not like the Argentina international.

Higuain got his first taste of European football with Madrid, joining from River Plate in 2007 and he went on to have a successful period in Spain, winning three La Liga titles.

But he was made available by Madrid in 2013 despite scoring 107 times in 190 league appearances, joining Napoli where he continued to thrive.

His final season in Naples saw him score 36 times in 35 Serie A matches, convincing Juve to part with a €90 million fee and he remains lethal in front of goal.

The 30-year-old will now have designs on revenge as he prepares to face Madrid in the Champions League quarter-finals, with his father suggesting Perez was the primary reason for Higuain departing the Santiago Bernabeu in the first place.

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“It hurt me the way he left Madrid,” Jorge Higuain told Cadena SER‘s El Larguero show.

“It’s something that the president did. [Perez] probably didn’t like him.

“I think they could have done a lot more things with [Karim] Benzema, Cristiano [Ronaldo] and Gonzalo together.

“When they formed that trio in Madrid, they were some of the best goal-scorers. Gonzalo could have stayed longer at Real Madrid.”

Higuain is a regular target for criticism with respect to his performances in big games for club and country, but his father – who played for both Boca Juniors and River Plate – thinks it comes down to jealousy from bitter journalists.

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“When criticism is constructive you can get positive things,” he said. “The player knows that he played badly, you do not need to be told, but when he hears criticism he can improve.

“Journalism sometimes has the authority to hire and fire players or coaches, and they have not touched a ball in their lives, that’s what bothers them [the journalists].

“Messi has also been criticised a lot. Argentina is a very nice country, but with the government and hospitals, there are injustices of all kinds – nothing happens. A player fails and the world seems to end.”


Higuain finally stepping out of the shadows of Ronaldo and Messi

Gonzalo Higuain is part of a very exclusive club; a team-mate of the two greatest players of the modern era in Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Not many others can say that. However it means he has to fight very hard to escape their shadows.

“With Messi and Ronaldo everybody is unlucky,” Alessandro Del Piero told Goal in his role as ambassador for the UEFA Champions League Trophy Tour Presented by Heineken . “Two icons, two incredible players, two champions. They score almost every game. It’s something crazy.”

There was a piece of commentary going around last week when Argentina lost 6-1 to Spain. Higuain had missed a very decent chance during the first half that could have prevented Spain from streaking so far clear.

“Higuain with his club is thinking about scoring, with Argentina he’s thinking about not becoming a meme,” the commentator said.

It would be no exaggeration to say that Higuain takes more flak than most for Argentina and that criticism is magnified because he has always played alongside Messi.

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Higuain is routinely cited as the reason Messi has no significant international titles to his name, the 2008 Olympic gold medal aside.

If Higuain had scored his one decent chance in the World Cup final in 2014 then it is reckoned Messi could well have put to bed any comparisons with Diego Maradona as the greatest Argentine and the greatest player of all time.

Had he finished a chance in the 2015 Copa America final after great work from the No.10 then at least Messi would have pocketed a continental title at the very least. To add insult to injury he missed a penalty in the shootout.

In national team colours Higuain is the fall guy. And he suffers. Messi can make any player compared to him look ordinary. It doesn’t help when the player in question misses the big chances that could further enhance Messi’s reputation.

Lionel Messi Gonzalo Higuain Argentina Hong Kong Friendly 14102014

To enhance Cristiano Ronaldo’s reputation – and his goal tally – were the main reasons Higuain was picked during his time at Real Madrid. In the past decade a centre forward like Higuain – or Karim Benzema for that matter – has not been in the Madrid team as a finisher or to get goals for himself, but to facilitate Ronaldo.

The Portugal captain was reportedly content to see Higuain depart Real Madrid when the forward was sold to Napoli in 2013.

Signed by president Ramon Calderon, the club president who took him from River Plate in 2007, Higuain looked an odd man out after Benzema arrived under the reinstalled Florentino Perez in 2009 and Ronaldo took centre stage.

In a sense the Frenchman was signed to replace Higuain, whose goalscoring numbers at Santiago Bernabeu were enviable. But maybe that was the point.

A focal point like Ronaldo does not want a striker who needs service with crosses and assists. Ronaldo instead needs a provider who occupies the central area.

Ronaldo accepts no rivals to his goalscoring mantle. Higuain is a complete No.9; a striker who demands service and thrives on goals. Benzema facilitates the work of Ronaldo a lot more diligently and that is probably the reason he has been retained up to now.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Real Madrid

Benzema recently crowned his 400th Real Madrid appearance with a goal but his scoring output is far beneath Higuain’s. Maybe that was the problem.

“You can compare [Higuain] to Ronaldo now because he changed the position on the field with Zidane especially,” said Del Piero. “He’s become an amazing striker.”

Benzema has suffered plenty of criticism for his part in this Real Madrid season. This has been a campaign in which Madrid have been beneath their best and when on numerous occasions they have played without Ronaldo in the lineup.

At 33 he appears to have accepted he cannot play every game and so the chief goalscoring threat falls to Benzema. Under that kind of spotlight, he has occasionally frozen.

Coach Zinedine Zidane counts Benzema as one of his favourites however and has stuck steadfastly by him. But in a season in which Madrid have had to vary their play and become less reliant on Ronaldo then maybe Higuain would have been a better bet to lead the line.

Higuain became the main man at Napoli during his three seasons there before joining Juventus for a €94 million fee in 2016. He could never have done that at Madrid. In San Paolo as in Turin, there is no Ronaldo demanding service. He is the threat and rightly seen by Juve as the solution to their ills in European competition. Higuain was summoned to be the difference maker, to elevate them above opponents in close matches.

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“Everybody has their own history and has to write the story on their own,” said Del Piero. “So, Gonzalo has the opportunity this year to do it.

“He’s doing it with Juve. He’s playing well, not only goals, so he’s in a good moment. I think he will reach the top of the level in the right moment this season.”

He did exactly that against Tottenham Hotspur in the last round, netting two goals in the first leg and claiming a goal and assist in the second. He knows what is expected of him and he can deliver.