April 30, 2018 / 10:23 AM / 22 days ago

Soccer: Normal service resumed in Serie A as Juve close in on title

MILAN (Reuters) - Normal service has been resumed in Serie A where Juventus are closing in on a seventh successive title after a trademark last-gasp win and a row is raging over the refereeing.

Soccer Football - Serie A - Inter Milan vs Juventus - San Siro, Milan, Italy - April 28, 2018 Juventus' Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala with Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri REUTERS/Alberto Lingria

This season has produced a fascinating see-saw battle between Juventus and Napoli, allowing Serie A to proudly claim that it is the only one of Europe’s big five leagues to have enjoyed a genuine title contest.

But, despite all the thrills and controversies of the last few weeks, it now seems set to end in familiar fashion — with a Juventus win.

Four points clear and with three games each to play, Juve just need to beat Bologna and Verona at home, both in the lower half of the table, to win the title, no matter what Napoli do.

Juventus were given a taste of their own medicine when they were beaten by a 90th-minute goal at home by Napoli nine days ago, cutting their lead to one point and re-igniting the race.

When they went 2-1 down to 10-man Inter Milan at San Siro on Saturday, it looked as if the door was about to open for Napoli to win their first scudetto since 1990.

But Juve produced the sort of fightback which has demoralised their rivals so often in the past, scoring twice in the last five minutes to snatch a 3-2 win with the help of a deflected goal and a set-piece header from Gonzalo Higuain.

With the pressure back on Napoli, it all went horribly wrong for Maurizio Sarri’s team as they lost 3-0 at Fiorentina on Sunday, never recovering after Kalidou Koulibaly was sent off in the eighth minute.

RECKLESS BODY-CHECK

As so often in Serie A, there were recriminations, centring on referee Daniele Orsato’s decision to send off Inter midfielder Matias Vecino in the 15th minute at San Siro but to allow a reckless body-check by Juve midfielder Miralem Pjanic to go unpunished. Pjanic was already on a yellow card.

“That was such an obvious yellow card that the referee could have given it blind-folded,” said former Juventus, Napoli, Milan and West Ham forward Paolo Di Canio, analysing the game for Sky Sport Italia.

Inter coach Luciano Spalletti tiptoed around the subject, but said: “Looking back, it doesn’t seem to me that the management of the match was balanced.”

There was also the question of whether it was right that Juventus keep playing first - something which Sarri complained about in January.

Sarri dodged the question when asked whether the Juventus result might have been preying on the minds of his teams at Fiorentina, expressing only bewilderment at his team’s listless performance.

“If we win our remaining games, we will achieve a points record which in itself will be very satisfying,” he said.

“The championship has always been in Juve’s hands and we have just been the fly in the ointment, and now we just have to think about redeeming ourselves after this defeat.”

Sarri, who saw striker Gonzalo Higuain leave Napoli for Juventus two years ago after breaking the Serie A scoring record, also pondered what effect another Juventus win would have on the championship.

“Look at the English league, the title changes hands every season,” he said. “There are several teams who have a hope of winning, a situation which is different from ours.

“The risk is that we lose fans, because they cheer for teams that will never win the title and they know that full well. But if you weaken the system, even the rich are impoverished.”

Writing by Brian Homewood in Bern, editing by Ed Osmond

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