Conte back as Juve return to Serie A grind
MILAN, Italy (AFP) –
After their midweek Champions League celebrations Juventus resume the weekly grind of Serie A with a potentially tricky away trip to Palermo that signals coach Antonio Conte’s return to the touchline.
Conte, who led Juve to the title last season, was banned at the start of the season by the Italian authorities for his role in a match-fixing affair while at his former club Siena.
Despite assistant Angelo Alessio keeping the Old Lady of Turin ticking over — Juve are top of the league and qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League on Wednesday — he has welcomed Conte back to the frontline.
“We’re happy with our qualification and the way we qualified,” said Alessio.
“We’re also happy to welcome back Antonio Conte for Palermo.”
After a 1-0 win over Shakhtar Donetsk allowed Juve to finish top of Group E, defender Leonardo Bonucci said of Conte: “He’s suffered a lot and we want to dedicate this to him.”
As a comeback match, it appears Conte – who has always proclaimed his innocence – could not have it any easier: Palermo sit fourth from bottom of the table with few notable victories to speak of.
Yet the Sicilians, unlucky to suffer a 1-0 defeat at Inter last week, are undefeated at the Stadio Renzo Barbera since a 3-0 rout by Napoli in their league opener back in August and held AC Milan to a 2-2 draw in October.
Juve’s extra incentive is for what would be their 12th win in 16 games is the fact Inter and Napoli could both drop points in their late match in Milan on Sunday.
Both teams have emerged as Juve’s strongest title opposition with Napoli in second only two points behind the Bianconeri, and Inter a further two points adrift.
“Are Inter Juve’s main rivals? Why not? Maybe that’s what we can become – I hope so,” said Inter president Massimo Moratti recently.
Napoli have already shown their limits playing away against big name rivals during a humbling 2-0 defeat in Turin in late October 20.
However the Partenopei should have reason to believe they can return from Milan with at least a point. Cagliari dug deep to grab a share of the points three weeks ago and Palermo came close last week until a late own goal by defender Santiago Garcia handed Inter all three points.
There is also some turbulence at Inter as the club digs it heels in over Wesley Sneijder.
The Dutch international star is out of the squad to face Napoli on Sunday amid an ongoing contract dispute.
The stand-off has threatened to boil over, with Sneijder breaking club rules on Wednesday by responding to fans’ questions on his availability on Twitter.
Inter coach Andrea Stramaccioni left the Dutchman out of his squad for the trip to Neftci in the Europa League on Thursday but maintained that his decision was not linked to the contract impasse.
AC Milan, meanwhile, will be without Kevin Prince Boateng (suspended) for their trip to Torino.
Like Juventus, Milan have qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League and are on a positive run that has seen them surge from the bottom half of the table to seventh, albeit 14 points behind Juventus.
A double strike from Francesco Totti helped push AS Roma into the top four on Saturday, proving instrumental in an entertaining 4-2 home win over Fiorentina, who missed the chance to leapfrog Inter Milan into third.
Fixtures (all times GMT)
Palermo v Juventus, Cagliari v Chievo, Pescara v Genoa, Siena v Catania, Torino v AC Milan (all 1300), Inter v Napoli (1845)
Sampdoria v Udinese (1600), Bologna v Lazio (1845)