Juve in good shape for long haul back

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The Independent Football

Juventus begin the long haul back to respectability today with a visit to the Adriatic seaside resort of Rimini, where the Turin club, founded in 1897, make their Serie B debut after being sent packing from Serie A for match-fixing.

Rimini finished 17th in Serie B last season and are unlikely to provide a test, but Juve's chances of a quick return to Serie A are hindered by the 17-point penalty imposed by the Italian Football Federation and by the departure of many of their top players, including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Emerson, Fabio Cannavaro and Lilian Thuram. But with the world's best goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon, having opted to stay, along with players of the calibre of Alessandro Del Piero, Pavel Nedved, Mauro Camoranesi and David Trezeguet, the team should still be far too strong for most Serie B opponents.

The presence of Juventus, however fleeting it turns out to be, along with that of newly promoted Napoli - the country's fourth-best supported team after Juve, Internazionale and Milan - will invigorate the division and provide windfall gains for many struggling clubs.

Large reductions in season-ticket renewals across Serie A suggest that, of the summer's two seismic football events - the match-fixing scandal and the World Cup victory - it is the former which made the more profound impact on fans. Serie A still has a very limited pool of potential champions - Inter and Milan, with, possibly, Roma and Palermo - but the Juve-Milan duopoly, which was slowly turning Serie A into a private duel, has been broken up for the time being.

Predictions about the outcome of the two championships have to be qualified until the Italian Olympic Committee concludes its arbitration process with Juventus, Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina.

If Milan's eight-point penalty and Fiorentina's 19-point penalty are upheld, Roberto Mancini's Inter will be strong favourites to add a genuine scudetto to the 2005-06 title, stripped from Juventus, that Inter were awarded by the federation's panel of "three wise men" in July.

The club's owner, Massimo Moratti, spent heavily in the close season to bring in eight players, including strikers Ibrahimovic and Hernan Crespo, the latter from Chelsea. Mancini is in an unenviable situation. With the traditional title rivals either handicapped or relegated, his reputation would be enhanced little if the club cantered to their 15th title. Failure to win the league in such circumstances, on the other hand, would see his stock as a coach fall dramatically. "We won't be allowed to make the slightest error," Mancini said this week, "but the responsibility won't make us crack."

The parade-ground question which Donald Sutherland's character, Vernon L Pinkley, asked in The Dirty Dozen - "very pretty, General, but can they fight?" - has often been posed of sides coached by Mancini. The 41-year-old seems determined to provide an affirmative answer this season after offloading two creative midfielders, Juan Sebastian Veron and David Pizarro, and bringing in two proven ball-winners in the former Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira, from Juventus, and Roma's Olivier Dacourt.

Inter's mettle will be tested immediately in this evening's match at Fiorentina. The Tuscan club picked up the forward Adrian Mutu in the Juventus fire sale but, more importantly, turned down Inter's offer of €22m (£15m) for the prolific striker Luca Toni. Starting from minus 19 points, coach Cesare Prandelli will need to match last season's points tally of 74 to have a chance of a Uefa Cup spot.

Chelsea's petro-roubles have left Inter's main title rivals, Milan, with an Andrei Shevchenko-shaped hole that Ricardo Oliveira, signed from Real Betis, will have a hard time trying to fill. The club have brought in at least one promising youngster, the attacking midfielder Joann Gourcuff from the French club Rennes. The last time their coach, Carlo Ancelotti, was so excited about a player was when they signed Kaka.

The other potential title contender are Roma, who played some scintillating football under coach Luciano Spalletti last season.

The penalties handed out to Juve, Milan and Fiorentina gave Roma, who had finished fifth, a place in this season's Champions' League, which will stretch the club's limited resources. Francesco Totti was realistic about Roma's Serie A ambitions: "There's no point kidding ourselves, Inter and Milan have more to offer."

Whoever wins the title will do so without the connivance of bent referees. The former World Cup referee Luigi Agnolin will now oversee the appointment of match officials. Who knows what surprises might be thrown up by a properly officiated Serie A? The last time there was a genuinely random procedure for selecting referees, in 1985, the title was won by provincial minnows Verona.

Price to pay

Punishments imposed as a result of the match-fixing scandal

* JUVENTUS

Deducted 17 points and relegated to Serie B

Out of Champions' League

* MILAN

Deducted eight points

* FIORENTINA

Deducted 19 points

Out of Champions' League

* LAZIO

Deducted 11 points

Out of Uefa Cup

* REGGINA

Deducted 15 points

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