Straight from the dark heart of Italy
For many in Italy the true curtain-raiser to the new Serie A season is not the Italian SuperCoppa, but the Trofeo Luigi Berlusconi, which traditionally takes place between AC Milan and Juventus at the San Siro in the week leading up to the start of the new campaign.
The former fixture has been played in Beijing for three of the last four years and coming as it does on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of the holiday season, very few back home can raise themselves to follow it with any enthusiasm.
However, this year’s meeting between champions Juventus and Italian Cup winners Napoli was a raucous affair well worth leaving the sun lounger for, with Juve running out 4-2 winners in extra-time and Napoli having two players and coach Walter Mazzarri sent-off.
The event was meant to showcase the strengths of Italian football, so naturally conspiracy theories abounded, with Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis calling foul and refusing to attend the awards ceremony, instead taking his players out for a champagne-filled evening and a bonus of €20,000 per head for being 'moral' winners.
The Trofeo Luigi Berlusconi, established by Silvio Berlusconi in 1991 in memory of his father, can be equally explosive, bringing together the two clubs that have dominated the modern Italian game. Sunday evening’s encounter was heavy with significance as it was the first time the sides had met since their league showdown and Sulley Muntari’s 'ghost goal' which was ruled out despite replays showing the ball was at least a metre over the line.
There were a few ghosts haunting the San Siro: Milan were still coming to terms with the sale of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva to Paris St Germain, while Juve were not only lamenting Alessandro Del Piero’s retirement, but also coming to terms with the 10-month ban enforced on Antonio Conte for failing to report alleged match-fixing amongst his players during his spell in charge of Siena.
The evidence which embroiled Conte and full-back Emanuele Pesoli, who only a few days ago was on hunger strike in protest at his three year suspension, came from a former Siena player Filippo Carobbio - and a guilty verdict, which has been appealed, has seen Conte banned from taking part in match-day preparations, leaving the inspirational touchline figure on the outside looking in.
Assistant coach and Conte’s former Juve team-mate Massimo Carrera had been handed the role of overseeing the match tactics and had got off to a winning start in China.
Juventus were hoping to announce their return to the upper echelons of European football with a big-name summer signing, and Robin Van Persie seemed to fit the bill, but the Dutch striker always favoured Manchester to Turin, leaving the new arrivals solid rather than spectacular.
After an impressive season at Parma, Sebastian Giovinco was bought back, while Udinese were raided for midfielders Mauricio Isla and Kwadwo Asamoah, with young prospect Paul Pogba arriving from Manchester United and Lucio bought out his Inter contract.
With Del Piero gone and Van Persie turning down the no.10 shirt, it was left to Del Piero’s one-time heir apparent Giovinco to lead the attack alongside Mirko Vucinic.
However, it was the key midfielders from the title-winning side, Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal, who put the visitors into a 2-1 lead going into the break after Robinho had opened the scoring for Milan.
Alessandro Matri, who has been a reported target for Allegri, added a third around the hour mark while Robinho reduced the deficit from the penalty-spot with just over ten minutes remaining.
Antonio Cassano was left out of the Milan squad amid reports that the club have not taken too kindly to the player’s apparent grumbles that Massimiliano Allegri does not have a competitive squad at his disposal. A swap deal with Inter could see Giampaolo Pazzini replace the crabby Cassano, which would certainly add a bit of much-needed spice to the Milanese rivalry.
In any case, Sunday evening belonged to Juve, who may have found an ideal foil or even an eventual replacement for Andrea Pirlo, in Pogba. The French youngster settled into the game immediately and dominated the centre of the pitch in the manner Conte must have expected of him when he pried the 19-year-old away from Old Trafford.
The Trofeo Berlusconi has been something of an albatross around the necks of the winners, who generally fail to go on and lift the big prize but on last night’s performance Juventus will feel that they are still the team to beat with or without Conte on the sidelines.
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