La Spezia 1 Juventus 1: Juventus whine as Canfalone shines

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The Independent Football

Italian football has never looked so frail - or sounded so cantankerous - after narrowly escaping ambush by an ageing assassin wearing a mask.

This is perhaps not the account that 32-year-old Simone Canfalone will want to pass on to his grandchildren when he speaks of the day he headed his little team into a lead that held for nearly three minutes into stoppage time. There is, however, an alternative version that will be seized on by all those fervently hoping that a wind of democracy - and even decency - is at last blowing through the Italian game.

Not only did Juventus require their own veteran Pavel Nedved to remind the impassioned crowd squeezed into a ramshackle stadium by the sea that he was once one of the great players of Europe, they left town moaning - wait for this, and then treasure it as maybe the most hilariously self-serving whine in the history of team sports - that they are just not getting the breaks from match officials.

By this evening Juventus, horror of horrors, may be forced into sharing the leadership of Serie B with a resurgent Napoli club, after a 1-1 draw in which the unheralded Spezzini - languishing in 17th place - played, according to their coach, Antonio Soda - "a game they can be proud to remember all their lives."

This was especially true of the heroic Canfalone, who might by now already be contemplating plans for a statue in his honour if Nedved had not equalised La Spezia's goal, which came from his courageous header after a cross by Marco Gorzegno. It was Canfalone's first game back after breaking his nose in a heading duel against Vicenza two weeks earlier.

Didier Deschamps, who won every possible honour as a player for Juve and France, was in no mood to celebrate a day when football's unanointed rose up with such extraordinary passion. The Juventus coach is still no doubt smarting from his team's only league defeat of the season against Mantova two weeks ago but it was still extraordinary that he could muster such little grace after so narrowly avoiding a similar fate here.

Said Deschamps: "Our problem was that our play was too individualistic... We got bottle-necked in midfield and I have to say it is very strange that we are never awarded penalties. We are the only team in Serie B not to receive one." It is a statistical oddity that was certainly not reflected in the work of Saturday's official, Alvino Rocchi di Firenze.

La Spezia fans, who when victory seemed so nearly certain, as the likes of Alessandro Del Piero and David Trezeguet floundered so profoundly, produced a stirring version of their club song, "The Eagles Fly", were convinced that he might have traded his garish yellow outfit for the classic black and white stripes of the fallen giants. The best he could do for Juve, in the absence of a compelling penalty award, and the necessary sending-off of their central defender Giuliano Giannichedda after a series of chilling assaults on the brave, skilful striker Massimiliano Varricchio, was to tag on an extra four minutes.

That was just enough time for Del Piero to feed Nedved and see the Czech flight home beautifully a shot from outside the box. Nedved was slightly more generous than his unsmiling boss, saying: "Maybe the result was a little kind to us, but I did think we did well after we were reduced to 10 men - then we got together and showed some fight."

What Juventus couldn't do was mask the scale of the renovation required if they are to make a major impact on Serie A next season, assuming, that is, they emerge with some new conviction from their confidence crisis. The exodus that followed relegation and a nine-point penalty in the wake of last year's calciopoli scandal has turned one of the most powerful teams in Europe into a shell. In place of Fabio Cannavaro, Patrick Vieira, Gianluca Zambrotta, Lilian Thuram, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Emerson, there is a mixture of the world-weary and, by old standards, the deeply mediocre.

One burst of speculation here over the weekend has Ronaldinho, Barcelona's apparently disaffected and undercommitted luminary, joining Internazionale's currently all-conquering coach Roberto Mancini at Chelsea after the inevitable departure of Jose Mourinho. But after the weekend here in a town which carries the unfortunate nickname of "il pisciatoio de Italia" - polite translation: the urinal of Italy - it is hard not to be believe it is the Old Lady who most needs a facelift and some striking refurbishment.

Certainly, there would have been menacing repercussions - not only for Deschamps, but the whole structure of the club - if the still vital goalkeeping star Gianluigi Buffon had not produced some brilliant work to repel some rampantly confident play by the Spezzini.

Buffon has emerged as the great Juventus loyalist but even he has said he will look elsewhere if major signings don't come this summer. All of this seemed rather academic - and arid - yesterday in the brilliant winter sunshine of a harbour town which had come so close to reproducing the greatest moment in its modest football history. It was more than 80 years ago, when Juve were still short of the majesty that would be so relentlessly augmented, that La Spezia scored their only victory over the great team of Italy.

"It is painful to have come so close," said a proud Soda, who for once did not have to suffer the post-game taunt of "pass the Campari". "Sometimes for a football player," he said, "there is the performance of his life. He realises all the best he has, and this is true of all my team today, though I have to give special mention to Confalone. He gave us our heart."

But then Pavel Nedved took away the glory of the man in the mask. It was a huge gift for a once mighty team playing in a disguise of their own.