x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

FOOTBALL: Around Europe

Familiar faces can be found on both sidelines when Juventus face Milan as many players, including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, have worn both kits.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is only the latest player to have moved between Juventus and AC Milan.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is only the latest player to have moved between Juventus and AC Milan.

MILAN // Serie A is perhaps the most balanced of Europe's major leagues this early autumn. It started later than most, so the cream has had less time to rise, but with the likes of Atalanta winning regularly and Inter Milan stumbling, the relative competitive equality of the top-flight sides is unmistakable.

Only two teams are yet to record victories, and the champions, AC Milan, sit in the bottom half of the table. Saturday morning, the difference between fourth place and 16th is only four points.

A new television contract, which distributes more democratically the yields from broadcast rights across clubs great and small may be contributing.

AC Milan might also argue that Zlatan Ibrahimovic's absence from all but one league fixture so far has hobbled the champions. The Swede returns Sunday for a game at Juventus, who after four games are the top of the table, which is precisely where they were when he played his last match for them, back in 2006.

Ibrahimovic's recovery from the groin injury that forced him to pull out of last month's Champions League visit to Barcelona - another of his several ex-clubs - took some unusual forms. He was in Sweden for a few days, and went out on a moose hunt.

"Part of his rehabilitation," Milan officials insisted on being informed what their star striker had been up to.

It is not known if Ibracadabra (as he was formerly known by Juve supporters) is as fine a marksman in the forests as he is on Serie A pitches, but the adventure seems to have done him good. Back in Milan's side for the first time since scoring against Lazio on September 9, Ibrahimovic struck again, from the penalty spot, in the club's 2-0 Champions League win over the Czech side Viktoria Plzen in midweek.

It is in the nature of the Juve-Milan relationship that Ibrahimovic's tussle with an old employer is far from unique. Among fans, the Juve-Milan enmity is fierce.

Among directors, a deal is a deal.

Ibrahimovic did not move directly between the clubs, because the circuit that took him away from the old Stadio delle Alpi in 2006 to making his first appearance in Juve's excellent new ground took in Juventus's enforced relegation, then three seasons with Inter Milan and one with Barcelona. But players such as Pippo Inzaghi, who may be on Milan's bench today, and Andrea Pirlo, who should be orchestrating the Juve midfield, did move directly from one to the other.

So, in effect, did Alberto Aquilani, although he spent last season at Juve and will continue this term with Milan, on loan from Liverpool.

Pirlo versus Aquilani - assuming the Milan coach Massimo Allegri starts the loanee - is one of the more captivating duels. For the best part of a decade, Pirlo governed the Milan midfield from its centre, hugely influential in establishing the pace, direction and angles of their attacking football.

The pace issue was the one that persuaded Milan to let Pirlo leave last summer. They thought he had slowed too much; Juventus barely hesitated in bringing him to Turin.

Hiring Aquilani was part of Milan's strategy to build a different midfield organisation, post-Pirlo.

Milan hope to have a bit more zip in midfield than they have shown for much of the domestic campaign. Kevin-Prince Boateng should return from injury, although Robinho and Alex Pato are still having treatment. The principal summer additions to Milan's defence, Philippe Mexes and Taye Taiwo are doubts to start.

Milan can expect to be threatened down the flanks, with Milos Krasic, Simone Pepe and Eljero Elia competing for places in manager Antonio Conte's starting XI.

 

sports@thenational.ae

 

Fixtures

Saturday

Roma v Atalanta 8pm

Inter Milan v Napoli 10.45pm

Sunday

Novara v Catania 5pm

Cesena v Chievoa 5pm

Palermo v Siena 5pm

Udinese v Bologna 5pm

Parma v Genoa 5pm

Lecce v Cagliari 5pm

Fiorentina v Lazio 5pm

Juventus v Milan 10.45pm

 

SPAIN PRIMERA LIGA

Lionel Messi has dismissed talk of chasing records after the Argentine struck twice in Wednesday’s 5-0 Champions League win at BATE Borisov to equal Ladislao Kubala as Barcelona’s second-highest scorer of all-time on 194 goals.

As the Spanish and European champions prepare to take on struggling Sporting Gijon on Sunday, Messi said that he was not focused on eclipsing top scorer Cesar Rodriguez, who scored 235 goals for the Catalan club in 351 appearances from 1939 until 1955.

Messi, 24 and the World Player of the Year, has scored his Barca goals in only 280 appearances.

“Cesar is not my goal,” he told the Barcelona website. “It is to do things well in each match. I know that I am making history, and hopefully I can do more.”

Fixtures

Saturday

Osasuna v Mallorca 8pm

Racing v Vallecano 8pm

Villarreal v R Z’goza 8pm

Valencia v Granada 10pm

Malaga v Getafe midnight

Sunday

Sociedad v Bilbao 2pm

Real Betis v Levante 6pm

Atletico v Seville 8pm

Sporting v Barcelona 10pm

Espanyol v R Madrid midnight

 

FRANCE LIGUE 1

After a big-spending summer, Paris Saint Germain are up against title contenders Lyon on Sunday in the game of the weekend in Ligue 1.

The club, owned by Qatar Sports Investments, spent more than €85 million (Dh428.9m) to sign nine players and build a squad to match the club’s ambitions.

Lyon, usually France’s big spenders, instead cut their payroll, making cautious purchases and relying on their youth academy.

PSG, Lyon and Toulouse all have 17 points at the top from eight matches.

The Argentine playmaker Javier Pastore, one of PSG’s recruits, has scored four goals and had two assists in six league matches.

“He’s a magician,” the defender Sylvain Armand told L’Equipe. “Everybody expects him to be a match winner. We could have a good season with all the internationals around him.”

Fixtures

Saturday

Caen v Nice 9pm

Dijon v Ajaccio 9pm

Lorient v V’ciennes 9pm

Nancy v Evian 9pm

Saint Etienne v Auxerre 9pm

Sochaux v Toulouse 9pm

Girondins v M’pellier 11pm

Sunday

Lille v Rennes 7pm

Marseille v Brest 7pm

PSG v Lyon 11pm

 

GERMAN BUNDESLIGA

Huub Stevens, the newly appointed Schalke coach, will have a tough start on Sunday with his team travelling to Hamburg, the club he was negotiating with before he surprised by joining the German Cup winners this week.

Angry Hamburg officials abruptly ended their bid to sign Stevens and cut off negotiations when it became clear that the Dutchman was also talking with Schalke, the club he had led to the 1997 Uefa Cup title.

Stevens, who also had a brief stint at Hamburg and saved them from relegation in 2008, was supposed to be their fireman again as Hamburg sit at the bottom of the table on four points from seven games.

Instead, it will be the interim coach Rodolfo Cardoso again sitting on the Hamburg bench.

Frank Arnesen, the sports director who joined from Chelsea with the mandate to turn things around, told the club’s website: “I want a coach who will be 100 per cent in favour of working here. That is the feeling I want to have.”

Fixtures

Saturday

Dortmund v Augsburg 5.30pm

Leverkusen v Wolfsburg 5.30pm

Nuremberg v Mainz 5.30pm

Freiburg v M’gladbach 5.30pm

Hoffenheim v Bayern 5.30pm

Hertha v Cologne 8.30pm

Sunday

Hannover v Bremen 5.30pm

Hamburg v Schalke 7.30pm

 

EREDIVISE

Mads Junker has acknowledged that his side, Roda, are in a slump of form following their poor start to the season.

Harm van Veldhoven’s side have lost five of their first seven games in the Eredivisie and they are hovering just above the relegation zone ahead of Saturday’s home clash against NAC Breda.

Roda also suffered a humiliating 7-1 thrashing against PSV Eindhoven last weekend.

Junker, the Danish striker, concedes that Roda’s situation is a problem but said the side need time to gel after a number of new arrivals came in during the summer.

“We’re in a dip and we’re lacking confidence,” Junker told Voetbal Primeur. “You notice that we lack experience after the departure of some players. Although the new boys are doing their best, we only know each other a bit.

“That takes time.”

Elsewhere, the league leaders AZ Alkmaar travel to second-bottom Venlo and Twente host Excelsior.

Fixtures

Saturday

Utrecht v Waalwijk 9.45pm

Vitesse v H’veen 10.45pm

Roda v Breda 11.45pm

Saturday

Venlo v Alkmaar 3.30pm

Twente v Excelsior 5.30pm

Feyenoord v Den Haag 5.30pm

Groningen v Ajax 5.30pm

NEC v PSV 7.30pm

 

SCOTTISH PREMIER LEAGUE

Steven Whittaker, the Rangers full-back, is worried about the threat of his former Hibernian teammate Garry O’Connor when the Easter Road side visit Ibrox on Saturday.

O’Connor has struck 10 goals in 11 games since returning to the Leith club, and his double secured a 3-2 win over St Johnstone on Wednesday.

Whittaker told Rangers TV: “Garry is scoring most of Hibs’ goals. He seems to be on the score sheet most games.

“He has great attributes. He’s a big lad, powerful, a good finisher. There is a lot to be wary of and he is high in confidence now he is scoring goals.

“We definitely need to keep him quiet on the day.”

Hibernian struggled in the early weeks of the campaign but have now gone five games unbeaten and were out of form when they won 3-0 at Ibrox last season.

“It’s a game we need to be wary of,” Whittaker said.

“We remember the game last year where they came and beat us comfortably.

“They definitely have the players who can do that again.

“We need to treat it in the right manner.

“If we start at the right tempo we can take the game to them.”

Fixtures

Friday

Aberdeen v Dunfermline (late)

Saturday

Dundee v Motherwell 6pm

Inverness v St Mirren 6pm

Kilmarmock v St Johnstone 6pm

Rangers v Hibernian 6pm

Sunday

Hearts v Celtic 3.45pm

 

*With agencies