Football’s return in Italy hangs in balance

Juventus were supposed to kickoff football’s return in Italy against AC Milan. (AP pic)

ROME: This week’s Italian Cup semifinal, second leg matches were set to bring football back to a nation emerging from the coronavirus crisis, but with two days until the scheduled kickoff the two matches are still awaiting government approval.

Juventus’ home clash with AC Milan early on Saturday was supposed be the first competitive match played in Italy since the country became Europe’s Covid-19 epicentre, and the start of what the football authorities hope will be a return to normality.

More than 34,000 people on the peninsula have died because of the virus since the start of the crisis, with the vast majority in northern regions like Piedmont and Lombardy which host Juve and Milan.

However, although the virus still persists, Italy began to gradually emerge from a stringent lockdown last month and has been slowly moving back towards regular life since, with the return of football pitched as the latest sign that the worst should be over.

Public broadcaster RAI has already announced its coverage of the two last four encounters, with Napoli vs Inter Milan scheduled for Saturday.

However, while Health Minister Roberto Speranza on Wednesday confirmed the dates for the semis and the June 17 final in Rome, he only said that the government was “leaning towards authorising” the last three matches of the competition.

Speranza’s comments at the Italian Senate come just as it appeared that weeks of squabbling between Italy’s football authorities and the government had been left behind, with what will likely be a large, sport-starved TV audience ready for the two matches behind closed doors.

Should, as expected, Saturday’s match take place fans will see a tie delicately poised at 1-1 following February’s entertaining first leg at the San Siro, which saw the ‘Rossoneri’ leading until Cristiano Ronaldo scored a stoppage-time penalty to take a draw and an away goal back to Turin.

‘Very odd situation’

Milan will be without injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who had sparked the seven-time European champions into life after returning in December, as they attempt to beat Juve in Turin for the first time since 2011.

Forward Samu Castillejo, who said he was robbed at gunpoint in Milan on Tuesday, and defender Theo Hernandez are suspended.

Milan coach Stefano Pioli will likely point to Ante Rebic, who had scored seven goals in nine games before football succumbed to the virus, as the goal threat.

They will be helped by Wednesday’s ruling which eliminates extratime in the event of deadlock after 90 minutes for both last-four second legs and next week’s final.

The cup is more of a priority for fallen giants Milan, whose last major honour came nine years ago, than for Juventus, who later this month resume a tight Serie A title tussle with Lazio.

However, Juve coach Maurizio Sarri told Sky on Wednesday that Juve were “lucky” to have the cup, Serie A and Champions League seasons played at separate intervals as they chase European glory to go with their domestic dominance.

“We can focus on our targets one at a time, and this could be an advantage for us,” he said.

“But we’ll only know once we’re out on the pitch because this is a very odd situation. After such a long break we’ve not even been able to play proper matches in training.”

Sarri is reportedly wary of risking players who are not 100% fit, and will leave out Gonzalo Higuain for his starting line-up.

However, with Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala and Douglas Costa likely to start, goals should not be a problem.

Whoever comes out on top will face either Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan or Napoli, who hold a 1-0 lead ahead of Saturday’s second leg in Naples.

The cup is Napoli’s best chance of European football next season following a tumultuous campaign that has featured dressing room disputes and the sacking of Carlo Ancelotti.

Inter are off the pace in the title race and in search of their first trophy since winning the cup in 2011.