x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Test for trio against English equivalents

The Milan derby was televised live in England, the broadcast rights to the match purchased by the BBC and transmitted on a Sunday night when almost all the English domestic football, FA Cup games, lay in the hands of rival commercial stations.

The Milan derby was televised live in England, the broadcast rights to the match purchased by the BBC and transmitted on a Sunday night when almost all the English domestic football, FA Cup games, lay in the hands of rival commercial stations. So the timing was good for the BBC for this one-off adventure in Serie A. They had been attracted by David Beckham's presence, of course, and by a hint of nostalgia for the 1990s, when terrestrial, free-to-air TV in England, in the shape of Channel 4, showed Italian games each Sunday.

That was the era when Italian football was the most glamorous in the world, had English players like Paul Gascoigne, David Platt and Paul Ince at its clubs and the football looked more sophisticated than the blood-and-thunder of the Premier League. The gap has certainly narrowed since then. But British viewers tuning in to the Milan derby saw something that challenged their notion of why Serie A's international audiences have declined. What they saw was neither cagey nor dull. It was terrific entertainment, like the best sort of Premier League for its end-to-end energy, its speed and its drama.

The Premier League calls itself the most glamorous in the world, and gets the best offers from overseas broadcasters. It is where Italy's top division used to be. Is the Premier League now much better? We will soon have an answer. Next week, English and Italian football go head-to-head in concentrated fashion in the Champions League: Chelsea versus Juventus, Inter Milan against Manchester United and Arsenal play Roma.

There is the Italian league leaders and champions, Inter, against the Premier League leaders and champions, United; the most watchable Serie A team of recent seasons, Roma, taking on their equivalents, Arsenal. And there is Claudio Ranieri, head coach of Juve, going back to the Stamford Bridge, where he used to work. Ranieri was popular at Chelsea because he is a likeable man. Hindsight - and the fact that four different managers have been in charge of Chelsea in the four and half years since Ranieri was sacked there - now leads fans in London to appreciate what Ranieri achieved there.

They will notice that his galvanising of Juventus, who had been relegated to the Serie B as a result of the refereeing scandal of 2006, has been impressive, particularly when you remember that for much of the season he has worked without Gianluigi Buffon, the goalkeeper; David Trezeguet, the prolific goalscorer; Christian Poulson, bought to anchor midfield; and the busy Hasan Salihamidzic. What conclusions will we draw this time in a week when all three Anglo-Italian first legs have been completed? If the form of the last five years continues we could see an English whitewash. Italy's clubs - with the exception of Milan - have had a poor record against English teams recently. But that could work to the Italians' advantage.

Inter have such a cushion at the top they can afford to rest players at Bologna on Saturday to be ready for United. They can devote training sessions this week to strategies for beating United. Juventus can hardly believe they will catch Inter now and so Ranieri can use the weekend to test the fitness of the senior players coming back from injury, while Chelsea meanwhile need to get used to a new manager, Guus Hiddink, who will take charge of the team for only his second match when they meet Juve.

Roma urgently do need Serie A points, but then so do Arsenal in the Premiership. Freshness will be key, and the matches fascinating. @Email:ihawkey@thenational.ae