Juve wary as rivals bare Serie A ambitions

Thursday August 17 2017

Juventus' forward Gonzalo Higuain eyes the ball during theit Italian SuperCup TIM  match against Lazio on August 13, 2017 at the Olympic stadium in Rome. PHOTO | ALBERTO PIZZOLI |

Juventus' forward Gonzalo Higuain eyes the ball during their Italian SuperCup TIM match against Lazio on August 13, 2017 at the Olympic stadium in Rome. PHOTO | ALBERTO PIZZOLI |  AFP

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MILAN

Juventus' Serie A season starts on the back of an apology from striker Gonzalo Higuain, and coach Massimiliano Allegri warning of obstacles as they face a potentially tougher title defence.

"We're not in top form yet but we have to be ready because the new championship is about to start and we can't afford to make any more slip-ups," Allegri said following a shock 3-2 loss to Lazio in the Italian Super Cup final.

Barely three months after a chastening 4-1 defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League final capped a record third consecutive double-winning season, Juventus host Cagliari in a championship-opening clash hoping it will lead them to a record-stretching seventh straight scudetto.

But last week's reverse — which prompted out-of-sorts Higuain to post an apology to fans on Twitter — is being seen as a portent that "unstoppable" Juve are finally ready to be toppled.

Despite Roma finishing only four points behind in runners-up spot last term, resurgent AC Milan could claim to be front of the queue.

Amid a busy summer spending spree that has yet to end, the seven-time European champions struck a major blow by luring highly-experienced Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci to the club.

The capture of Porto starlet Andre Silva, Ivorian striker Franck Kessie (Atalanta) and, possibly, Fiorentina marksman Nikola Kalinic in the coming days, means Vincenzo Montella's men can start dreaming of challenging for a first title since Allegri led them to the 2011 scudetto.

While Higuain's record move from Napoli to Juventus was the transfer saga of last summer, Bonucci's shock switch to Milan on a five-year deal has rekindled memories of Italy great Andrea Pirlo's move the other way — from Milan to Juventus — in 2011, before his decision to quit the club in 2015.

'AMBITIOUS'

And like Pirlo, Bonucci, who immediately took over the captain's armband from midfielder Riccardo Montolivo, wants to make a lasting impact.

"I'm ready for the season and as ambitious as ever. I'll give everything for Milan, and more," said Bonucci, who will face Juventus for the first time as a Milan player at the San Siro on October 29.

"My objective is to help Milan back to the summit of world football. I chose this club to start afresh. I'm here to win trophies."

Milan are already being touted as Juve's biggest challengers, but cross-town rivals Inter would be quick to temper Rossoneri enthusiasm.

Following their own impressive spending spree last summer, the Nerazzurri ultimately flattered to deceive, going through three coaches, and a number of internal crises before failing to qualify for Europe.

Now with former Roma coach Luciano Spalletti at the helm, Inter aficionados are dreaming big again following an encouraging pre-season period that brought seven wins and a draw including friendly victories over Lyon, Chelsea and Bayern Munich.

Roma, Juve's closest challengers in recent seasons, will look for an early season filip away to Atalanta on Sunday but the pressure is already on as fans prepare for life without Spalletti, and club legend Francesco Totti.

While Totti's number 10 jersey was recently flown into space to mark the end of his 24-year spell with the club at the end of last season, more earthly matters are concerning the Giallorossi's long-suffering fans.

A pre-season punctuated by a 4-1 loss to Spanish side Celta Vigo, the club's failure to sign replacements for Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) and Antonio Rudiger (Chelsea) and doubts over new coach Eusebio Di Francesco have been among fans' concerns in recent weeks.

Elsewhere, Serie A debutants Benevento kick off their dream promotion to Italy's top flight away to Sampdoria, with fellow promotees Spal and Verona away to Lazio and at home to Napoli respectively.

FIXTURES

Saturday

Juventus v Cagliari (7pm), Verona v Napoli (9.45pm)

Sunday

Atalanta v Roma (7pm), Bologna v Torino, Crotone v AC Milan, Inter Milan v Fiorentina, Lazio v SPAL, Sampdoria v Benevento, Sassuolo v Genoa, Udinese v Chievo (all 9.45pm)