Atalanta 0 Juventus 1: Higuain cuts through the fog to hand Juve advantage

Juventus will take a slender advantage into their Coppa Italia semi-final second leg against Atalanta after securing a 1-0 win at a fog-laden Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia.

Massimiliano Allegri’s side did not quite show the form that had seen them win their previous eight games – a run that has seen them concede just one goal –  but comfortably held their hosts at arm’s length for much of the match.

Gonzalo Higuain – clearly buoyed after ending his six-game goal drought against Chievo on Saturday – got them off to a blistering start with a fine goal after just three minutes.

The hosts rarely threatened their more illustrious opponents, but Alejandro Gomez wasted a golden opportunity to pull them level in the 24th minute when his penalty was thwarted by Gianluigi Buffon.

Chances were at a premium in a desparately poor second half, with Juventus seemingly content to take a narrow lead into the second leg at the Allianz Stadium on February 28. 

Buffon was making his first appearance his first appearance since the 1-0 win over Napoli on December 1 and would have scarcely seen Higuain’s superb early opener, given the thickness of the fog in Bergamo.

And given the dense fog in Bergamo, it is unlikely that the legendary stopper would have seen much of Higuain’s superb early opener.

The 30-year-old collected Miralem Pjanic’s pass just outside the penalty area, shimmied past two defenders and stroked a composed finish into the bottom left corner of Etrit Berisha’s net for his 11th goal of the campaign.

A clearly shell-shocked Atalanta struggled to find their footing in the game after that early blow but were handed the chance to level midway through the first half.

After reviewing video footage, referee Paolo Valeri deemed Medhi Benatia to have deliberately handled the ball inside the area. From the resulting spot-kick, Gomez could only conspire to deliver a belated present to Buffon, giving him ample time to get down and repel his tame effort.

Gomez’s wastefulness should have twice been punished before the interval, but Higuain and Blaise Matuidi both thrashed shots over the crossbar from promising positions.

Any thoughts of Juventus running away with the tie were soon dispelled by a tepid start to the second half, with Atalanta refusing to throw bodies forward in search of an equaliser.

When gaps did start to appear in the hosts’ backline, Mario Mandzukic bundled a header wide and Higuain dragged a low effort past the post.

Atalanta almost found an unlikely leveller with two minutes remaining as the under-worked Buffon raced off his line to block Hans Hateboer’s shot and preserve Juve’s lead ahead of an intriguing second leg.

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Chievo 0 Juventus 2: Khedira and Higuain punish ill-disciplined Chievo

Juventus leapfrogged Napoli at the summit of Serie A as they edged past nine-man Chievo 2-0 at the Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi on Saturday.

Massimiliano Allegri’s side were some way from their best during an insipid first-half display, but received a boost ahead of the second period when Chievo’s Samuel Bastien received a red card for two quick-fire bookings.

Chievo’s woes were then compounded after 60 minutes as Fabrizio Cacciatore received a straight red card for dissent. 

The defender’s stupidity was duly punished just moments later as Sami Khedira broke the deadlock with his first goal since a hat-trick against Udinese in October.

Gonzalo Higuain ended his six-game goal drought to secure victory with two minutes to play, a triumph means that Juve have now won their last six Serie A games, conceding just one goal.

That run means they now hold a two-point lead over Napoli, who can return to the top of the table on Sunday when they host Bologna. 

Gianluigi Buffon, who celebrates his 40th birthday on Sunday, received an early present in the shape of a place on the substitutes’ bench – his first involvement in a matchday squad since the 1-0 win over Napoli on December 1. 

His presence did little to inspire Juve during a turgid opening half hour, though, with Douglas Costa producing their only effort of note – a whipped effort that flashed past Stefano Sorrentino’s right-hand post. 

Higuain attempted to spark his side into life, but could only scuff an effort into the grasp of Sorrentino from the edge of the penalty area.

Chievo’s hopes of securing anything from the game were dealt a significant blow 10 minutes before the interval when Bastien received his marching orders. The Belgian picked up two yellow cards in the space of just over two minutes, the second for an inexplicable tug of Kwadwo Asamoah’s shirt.

The last action of a desperately poor first half was Khedira’s low drive, which was comfortably gathered by Sorrentino. 

The expected Juve onslaught failed to materialise in the early stages of the second period, with the 10 men of Chievo holding them at bay with surprising ease.

The visitors did come close to breaking the deadlock in the 53rd minute as Mario Mandzukic clipped a first-time drive towards goal after smart play down the left by Costa, Sorrentino once again equal to the effort. 

Cacciatore’s moment of madness on the hour then truly handed the impetus to Juve, who duly took the lead just six minutes later.

Substitute Federico Bernardeschi calmly pulled back into the path of Khedira, who drilled a superb half-volley past Sorrentino for his fourth league goal of the season. 

Juve added something of a gloss to the scoreline with just two minutes remaining as an unmarked Higuain met Costa’s cross to send a header into the bottom corner and his side to the top of the table – for one night at least.

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Juventus 2 Genoa 0: Dybala & Higuain secure Coppa Italia quarter-final spot

Juventus booked their spot in the quarter-finals of the Coppa Italia with a 2-0 win over Genoa thanks to goals from Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain

Dybala was back in the team for the visit of Genoa and opened the scoring towards the end of the first half as he curled a low shot past goalkeeper Eugenio Lamanna.

Juventus dominated the first half but it was a different story as Genoa responded after the break and had chances to equalise.

A mistake from Andrea Barzagli almost proved costly before striker Andrey Galabinov twice went close to levelling.

Massimiliano Allegri cut a frustrated figure on the sidelines as his much-changed team laboured at times in the second half, until Higuain made the game safe on 76 minutes.

The striker struck low, after good work from Dybala, to secure the win in what was a tougher game than the hosts may have expected, against a team struggling at the foot of the Serie A table.

Allegri made eight changes to his starting line-up but still had plenty of quality on show with Federico Bernardeschi back in the team and at the heart of the hosts’ best attacking moves in the opening 45 minutes.

The Italian set up Douglas Costa for Juve’s first effort on goal after 24 minutes, but the Brazilian’s shot was parried to safety by goalkeeper Lamanna.

The Juventus threat increased as the half wore on and Genoa were warned again when Claudio Marchisio latched onto a cross before turning and firing over the bar.

Dybala then hit a shot wide on 38 minutes before Lamanna did well to touch a Bernardeschi free-kick onto the bar and out for a corner.

However, Juventus were not to be denied and Dybala finally broke through with just three minutes of normal time remaining in the first half, curling a low, left-footed shot past Lamanna.

Genoa had a glorious chance to equalise shortly after the break as a poor pass from Barzagli allowed Ricardo Centurion to latch onto the ball, but he could not quite get his shot away and could only run the ball out of play.

Juventus goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny was then called into action for the first time of the evening, touching a fierce strike from Galabinov over the bar.

With an hour gone, Allegri sent on Higuain for Costa but still Genoa threatened, Galabinov shooting fractionally wide of the post as the game started to open up.

Unsurprisingly Giorgio Chiellini also came on as a substitute, in a bid to strengthen the home defence and add some authority to a backline that was being tested by a Genoa side with little to lose.

Juventus then showed the difference in quality late on to secure the win, as Dybala slid in a pass to Higuain who finished expertly to double Juve’s lead.

The hosts then survived a late scare as Genoa were awarded a penalty, after Kwadwo Asamoah tangled with Pietro Pellegri in the penalty area, only for referee Fabio Maresca to reverse the decision after consulting with the VAR.

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How Inter ace Icardi went from ‘vile piece of sh*t’ to Europe’s most wanted striker

Just a couple of weeks ago, Luciano Spalletti enthused: “Who doesn’t want Mauro Icardi?”

Certainly, these days, one would be hard pressed to find any club in Europe that would not be delighted to have the Argentine attacker within their ranks.

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Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal have all been linked with Icardi this season, while there is mounting speculation that Real Madrid will make a move for Serie A’s top scorer, whose buy-out clause is only €110 million.

However, just over a year ago, Icardi was considered more trouble than he was worth. 

Despite an impressive strike rate in Italy, Argentina still wanted nothing to do with a player who had courted controversy in his homeland by marrying the ex-wife of his compatriot and former friend Maxi Lopez. 

Furthermore, on October 16, 2016, Inter fans decided that they had had enough of their captain. 

When Icardi missed a penalty in a home game with Cagliari, some Nerazzurri supporters celebrated. They did so as they stood behind a banner strewn across the Curva Nord that read: “You’re not a man. You’re not a captain. You’re just a vile piece of sh*t.”

Mauro Icardi Inter banner

Mauro Icardi Inter Cagliari

Why such vitriol against one of their own, the only consistent performer in an otherwise average squad? 

The answers lay in a book, Icardi’s book, ‘Sempre Avanti‘, in which he had boasted about taking on the club’s ultras after a defeat at Sassuolo in February 2015.

“I took off my shirt and shorts and gave them to a kid,” he wrote. “It’s a shame that a head ultra flew over to him, took the shirt from his hands and threw it at me with disgust.

“This is when I start insulting him. ‘Piece of sh*t, you are acting all arrogant with a little kid to show off to the rest of the curva? Do you think you’re hard? You should only be ashamed.’

“In the locker room, I was acclaimed as a hero because nobody had ever faced off that way with one of the fan leaders.”

Unsurprisingly, the ultras took issue with both the accuracy and tone of Icardi’s take on the clash. “Icardi,” read a statement released by the ultras, “as far as we’re concerned, you’re finished!”

And it seemed he was; his days at Inter looked numbered. 

The only trouble was that nobody was willing to take a risk on a striker who made enemies as easily as he scored goals.

Consequently, while Icardi was fined for his outburst, he stayed at San Siro. Furthermore, he was allowed to keep the captaincy. 

However, he had lost a lot of supporters – and not just in stands but also in the dressing room.

Felipe Melo Mauro Icardi PS

Mauro Icardi Inter

Felipe Melo left Inter to join Palmeiras in January of this year but when asked about Icardi’s leadership skills in June, he stated: “He’s still very young and he has to grow, but he’s also very strong right now. If he doesn’t score, Inter don’t win, that’s all too obvious.

“But the captain’s armband is another thing. I think it’s too much for him. A player who is captain must have the respect of his opponents. He’s someone who, when you look at him and listen to him, you should think ‘s***!’.

“And I’m also referring to the opposition, who should be afraid of him in a positive sense, and this is not the case with Icardi. 

“There have been too many things in the past. I don’t see him as a real captain today. Maybe in a few years, because he’s a champion, but right now he shouldn’t wear the armband.”

It was expected that incoming Inter boss Spalletti would concur. Instead, the man who had had no issue in taking on Francesco Totti at Roma immediately took to Icardi, having been impressed by his desire, commitment and willingness to learn.

The feeling was mutual. After years of playing under weak-willed coaches, Icardi was invigorated by the methods of a coach he compared to “a hammer”. 

He felt Inter finally had someone capable of restoring Inter to their former glory. As a result, he was willing to do whatever Spalletti asked of him, even if that meant dropping deeper to do more defensive work.

“Icardi inside the penalty area is impossible to stop,” Spalletti argued. “He is lethal. I would like him to join in more with the team play, but that takes nothing away from his finishing.”

Luciano Spalletti Mauro Icardi PS

Mauro Icardi Inter Stats PS

Indeed, Icardi has been sensational so far this season, scoring 16 goals in just 15 games. There is no deadlier goalscorer in Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues right now. 

Both his shooting accuracy (75.61 per cent) and his shot conversion rate (39.02%) are better than those of Edinson Cavani (64%; 34%), Neymar (72%; 36%), Mohamed Salah (68.89%; 26.67%), Harry Kane (50.91%; 18.18%), Robert Lewandowski (58.7%; 30.43%), Cristiano Ronaldo (39.62%; 3.77%) and even Lionel Messi (58.46%; 20%).

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What’s more, his all-round game is improving. He still has a lot less touches per game than his striking rivals but he is far more involved in Inter’s build-up play, as Jorge Sampaoli noted when recalling Icardi to the Argentina set-up.

“We need a striker who, as well as goals, has the characteristics of an assist-maker,” the Albiceleste coach explained.

Icardi’s improvement – both in terms of his all-round game and his attitude – is why he is back in the Argentina team. It is why Inter are top of Serie A. It is why the ultras love him again. And why Spalletti was right when he claimed that, nowadays, everybody wants Mauro Icardi.

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Buffon, Pjanic give Juventus concern ahead of Olympiacos clash

Juventus could be without Gianluigi Buffon and Miralem Pjanic for Tuesday’s key Champions League clash with Olympiacos, head coach Massimiliano Allegri has confirmed.

The veteran goalkeeper has a calf complaint, while midfielder Pjanic is struggling with a muscle strain, and both are doubts for the meeting with the Greek champions.

Mario Mandzukic is fit again after missing the win over Napoli, while Gonzalo Higuain will also play, but defender Giorgio Chiellini is not in the squad for the match in Athens, leaving Allegri with some concern about his options.

“Higuain will play, he’s fine physically and mentally. Mandzukic is back,” Allegri told a news conference.

“There are two problems: Buffon and Pjanic. Miralem has a muscle strain; Gigi has a calf problem but, if he can’t play then [Wojciech] Szczesny will play.

“With Chiellini out, one of Mattia De Sciglio or [Daniele] Rugani will play. If Pjanic doesn’t play, we have [Claudio] Marchisio, [Rodrigo] Bentancur and [Sami] Khedira.”

A win will guarantee Juve progress to the last 16 along with group winners Barcelona, but a defeat would allow Sporting CP the chance to climb above them into second place if they beat the Catalans at Camp Nou.

But Allegri, whose side ended Napoli’s unbeaten run in Serie A on Friday, has urged his players to ignore the Barca result and focus simply on beating Olympiacos.

“It’s more important than Napoli because we have to win,” he said. “We need to show respect and we don’t need to think about what will happen in Barcelona.”

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Olympiacos are guaranteed to finish bottom of Group D, having lost four and drawn one of their first five games, but head coach Takis Lemonis wants them to put on a special display for their fans.

“Certainly, we are in a bit of a special situation, but first of all there is the prestige of the game; secondly the points are important for our UEFA nation ranking,” he said,

“Another point is we must always have the incentive to play well. Of course, I’m not troubled about incentives. In any case, it is important to be completely focused and play our best game.”

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