Football: Ancelotti ready to reinstate the Juve dynasty

Champions' League: United's European rivals may have injury problems but they have a determined and able coach
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WITH THEIR feet in Tuscany but their heads already in Manchester, Juventus went down to a dismal 1-0 defeat at Empoli, Serie A's bottom club, on Saturday. It was their first experience of failure under their new coach, Carlo Ancelotti, who took over from Marcello Lippi in mid-February with the immediate aim of guiding the team to their fourth consecutive European Cup final, and it reawakened doubts about their ability to sustain the superiority enjoyed over Alex Ferguson's Manchester United in recent campaigns.

"We lost everything," Angelo Di Livio, the "little soldier" on the left wing, said. "I hope we've learnt a lesson."

"If we play like this in Manchester," the young forward Nicola Amoruso offered, "we'll be destroyed." Ancelotti had left Amoruso and his fellow striker, Filippo Inzaghi, on the bench in the hope of giving them a rest before Wednesday, but he was forced to summon them into action at half- time in the vain hope of equalising a goal headed by the home team's stopper and captain, Stefano Bianconi, from Arturo Di Napoli's free-kick just before half-time. Inzaghi, who has scored in Italy's last four games, missed a couple of chances but at least looked livelier than his colleagues, who failed to take advantage of inferior opponents and lift themselves from the anonymity of seventh place in the table.

Empoli are just visiting Serie A, an impression confirmed by the temporary grandstands and informal air of their little ground, a five-minute walk from the town centre. They had not won in their previous 15 games, and their recent inability to put up much of a fight was reflected in the message that greeted the players as they took the field in front of a crowd of 12,000. "Traitors," the banner read. "Without pride or dignity, you have lost the respect of your fans."

They got some of it back in the Tuscan sunlight on Saturday afternoon with a spirited display against a team suffering more than had been anticipated from the absence of several of their first-choice players. Zinedine Zidane and Paolo Montero remained in Turin for treatment to knee injuries. Edgar Davids and Mark Iuliano were serving suspensions. Thierry Henry - ineligible, in any case, for the European Cup - stayed at home with gastric flu. Zoran Mirkovic was on the bench, preoccupied by fears for his family in Belgrade. Antonio Conte, the club captain, also took a seat among the substitutes after his labours with Italy in the preceding days. And, of course, there was no Alessandro Del Piero, who had made a surprise appearance at the club's training centre on Thursday to announce that, after visiting the surgeon who had performed an operation on his right knee in Colorado in October, he was at last ready to resume training, but could not promise to return before next season.

"The responsibility for the defeat is mine," Ancelotti said after the match. "I had some tired players, so I tried to pick a fresh team because I knew Empoli would be lively. But we lost the game at the mental level. The whole squad relaxed, including me, and we paid the price."

Ancelotti is well aware of the significance of the coming semi-final between two football clubs who both claim to be the biggest in the world. For the last few years Manchester United and Juventus have used the European Cup as a symbolic battleground in their fight for supremacy. And it must be said that, in terms of overall achievement as well as success in the continent's most important club competition, the Italians have the better claim.

Founded in 1897 by the brothers Canfari at their bicycle shop near the centre of Turin, Juventus have won the Italian championship 25 times and the European Cup twice. Since the early days the club has been the property of the Agnelli family - not, as most people imagine, through the Fiat empire, but through their own holding company, IFI, which owns 40 per cent of Fiat as well as controlling interests in the Chateau Margaux vineyard, Roquefort cheese, the Sofitel chain, Danone dairy products, Club Med, banks and real estate.

It was Edoardo Agnelli, president from 1924-35, who established the club's taste for expensive foreign talent by bringing Raimondo Orsi, a left winger, and Luisito Monti, a centre-half, from Argentina. Orsi came first, for a salary of 8,000 lire a year, a Fiat and a house with a butler, and won five League titles in a row.

Edoardo, killed in an air crash before the Second World War, was succeeded by his son Gianni, president from 1946-54 and the club's patriarch ever since. Under his eye, the devastating combination of a local boy, Giampiero Boniperti, a wayward genius from Argentina, Omar Sivori, and a Welsh giant, John Charles, re-asserted the club's pre-eminence in the late 1950s. The teams of the subsequent decades featured such glittering performers as Luis Del Sol, Pietro Anastasi, Helmut Haller, Dino Zoff, Marco Tardelli, Gaetano Scirea, Franco Causio, Roberto Bettega, Paolo Rossi, Liam Brady, Roberto Baggio and Gianluca Vialli. The greatest team of all, perhaps, was the one inspired by Michel Platini and Zibi Boniek, winners of the club's first European Cup in 1985. Under Lippi, who took over in 1994, Juventus won three championships in four years (and finished runners-up in the other year) while reaching the European Cup final three times in a row - beating Ajax in the first before losing successively to Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid.

This is a club with a strong dynastic sense. Boniperti, having made a record 444 appearances in the black-and-white stripes, served as an equally successful club president from 1971 to 1990. Nowadays Bettega, who represented the club 327 times, is the general manager, responsible for the constant transfer activity - last week he was in Monaco, bidding for David Trezeguet and Martin Djetou - and for the plans to tear down the detested Stadio Delle Alpi on the outskirts of town and replace it with something more atmospheric.

So Juventus are an institution, as famous as any football club in the world. Yet if you talk to a local cab driver or a news vendor, you'll be told that they aren't even the biggest club in town.

Down the road from their old ground, the Stadio Communale, now used as the training headquarters, is the Filadelfia, the home of Torino, who are currently struggling to escape from Serie B but can nevertheless claim to be much closer to the hearts of the citizenry. It is a relationship not unlike that between the two Manchester clubs. Juventus, like United, have the glamour and the money and the worldwide following, and are the recipients of constant sneering. Torino haven't fallen as far as City, but even if they did it would take a generation for their fans' stubborn loyalty to fade.

When Ancelotti took over in February, he must have felt the weight of a special responsibility. Lippi, who had begun the season by announcing his intention to leave at the end of it, discovered that all his past success was no proof against the effect of a lame-duck stewardship. After a 4-2 home defeat at the hands of Parma, he announced that he was no longer capable of motivating the players and cleared his desk. Ancelotti, already nominated as his successor, agreed to advance his arrival by six months, and the team's results - if not, to be truthful, the quality of their play - immediately picked up.

Aged 39, a distinguished former midfield man with Roma, Milan and Italy, with coaching experience at Reggiana and Parma and with the national team as Arrigo Sacchi's assistant, Ancelotti is a tracksuited type who already has the weighty presence and deliberate manner of a padrone but dismisses the idea of special pressures.

"It's certainly difficult to do this job at Juventus," he said, "but it would be just as difficult to do it anywhere else. You have to reach whatever target the club itself sets. Of course Juventus is a very big club, and has the highest possible targets, but it's really no different from a small club."

So this team that will take the field at Old Trafford on Wednesday - it this Lippi's team, or Ancelotti's?

"This is Juventus," he replied. "But what Lippi achieved here is something that won't disappear."

United, he agreed, were the favourites this time, despite their poor record against Juventus. "In general, that's probably right. But we're talking about a semi-final of the Champions' Cup, which goes beyond simple assessments of current form. It's a question of the shape of the two teams, of who is injured and who can play."

His main problem is what to do if Zinedine Zidane fails to recover from the knee injury suffered against Olympiakos three weeks ago. The match at Empoli showed that, like France, Juventus have no straight replacement for his genius. "Well, there's Del Piero," Ancelotti said. "But, of course, he can't play. If Zidane doesn't play in Manchester, we'll certainly have to modify our tactics, probably by picking two big forwards."

If Zidane reports fit, the most likely formation in Manchester will consist of Angelo Peruzzi in goal, a back four of Mirkovic, Iuliano, Montero, and Gianluca Pessotto, a midfield of Conte, Didier Deschamps, Zidane, Davids and Di Livio, with Inzaghi alone up front. In Zidane's absence, Ancelotti would choose from Daniel Fonseca, Juan Eduardo Esnaider and Amoruso for the second forward position. Defensively there are several options, with Ciro Ferrara, Alessandro Birindelli and the promising Igor Tudor also available. "We're aware that the greatest danger from Manchester comes from the wings," Ancelotti said. "We won't man-mark David Beckham, because our defence works collectively, but Pessotto and Di Livio will play on his side of the pitch."

He dismissed the idea, foolishly voiced by the Internazionale squad before the quarter-final, that United's defence is fatally flawed by a lack of speed. "Maybe they don't have very fast players at the back, particularly the two in the centre of the defence," he said. "But I think Johnsen and Stam are very good players - highly intelligent, tactically aware. They can get cover from the two full-backs, who are faster. Collectively, the defence has as much speed as it needs. In my opinion, it's a pretty good defence."

As for Juventus, the dire performance at Empoli will not have persuaded Manchester United's spy in the grandstand - Martin Ferguson, the manager's brother - to report that the Italians are a busted flush. "There is nothing to be saved from this performance," Ancelotti admitted before the team coach pulled out of the little town. "It was an ugly sensation. But I'm sure that in Manchester, everything will be different."