x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

'New Azzurri' make wrong impression

Italians woke up to a weekend confronted with end-of-year concerns, voiced by men in high places.

Italians woke up to a weekend confronted with end-of-year concerns, voiced by men in high places. Cesare Prandelli, the head coach of the national team, spoke of the urgent need for the Azzurri to reconnect with their most important constituents, the Italian public.

Michael Platini, the president of Uefa, meanwhile observed on the pages of Gazzetta dello Sport that Italian football was in many respects lagging behind the pacesetters in his dominion, Europe.

Platini felt "a little dissatisfied" by the Italian game, towards which he is affectionate, having played his best club football, for Juventus a generation ago.

By Saturday, of course, Italy may have claimed for its football the title of best club side in the world, should Inter Milan triumph at the Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi.

Equally, the chances are that Serie A will be looking pessimistically at the prospects of sending one of its teams to the same competition in 2011.

The draw for the last 16 of the Champions League takes place on Friday. None of the Italian teams involved - AC Milan, Inter and Roma - are seeded, which means a likelihood of their having to meet English giants like Manchester United and Chelsea, against whom they have a generally poor record over recent seasons, or the favourites Barcelona.

In the Europa League draw, Italian interest will be minimal, and non-existent if Napoli fail to make up ground in the final group matches. Juventus, Sampdoria and Palermo are already out.

None of which should distract too heavily from what is shaping up as one of the more intriguing domestic tussles for many years.

After the 16th match day of Serie A, the table has a gridlock of clubs in second, third and fourth, with Juventus's last-gasp 2-1 victory over Lazio leaving those two clubs joined on 30 points along with Napoli.

AC Milan, whose new-look front trio of Kevin-Prince Boateng, Robinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic each scored goals in a 3-0 win - over Bologna - for the second weekend in a row, stand six points clear of Juve at the top.

Platini would have admired the spirit in which Milos Krasic secured all three points for his old club, Juve, converting the winning goal deep into stoppage time.

Prandelli probably enjoyed the weekend a little less.

Like Platini, who favours a limit on the number of foreigners in club teams, Prandelli would like to see more Italian nationals making the right headlines. Napoli's match-winner in their 1-0 victory at Genoa was Marek Hamsik, a Slovak, Milan's in-form trio are Ghanaian, Brazilian and Swedish, while Krasic is a Serb.

Few of Milan's Italians conform to the notion that Prandelli has of rejuvenating the Azzurri squad - Rino Gattuso, Massimo Ambrosini and Andrea Pirlo, his midfield warriors, are all over 30 - while some of the footballers earmarked lead Italy's revival are decidedly out of sorts, or making the wrong sorts of headlines.

Prandelli talked of "having to win back the love of the people", his comments coinciding with negotiations to end a proposed strike by Serie A players.

He bemoaned the long absence through injury of Italy goalkeeper Gigi Biffon "a leader in the dressing-room"; so he would have been miffed to hear Gigi Del Neri, the Juve coach, say on Sunday that Buffon, whose relationship with his club coach is tense, announce that Buffon was "not indispensable" to his employers.

Prandelli will have monitored closely, yesterday, the latest developments in Antonio Cassano's contractual dispute with Sampdoria. Cassano is in the vanguard of Prandelli's New Azzurri; yet he has been marginalised for disciplinary reasons by his club for the best part of a month.

And as for "winning back the fans", another display of petulance by Mario Balotelli, the newly-capped striker, as he refused to shake hands with Roberto Mancini, his coach, on being substituted for Manchester City, was hardly the kind of gesture Prandelli was recommending to a group of young men who need to win over the public.