Juve can benefit from Roma's ultra pressure

Italy – Decision day in Serie A
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Who said Italian football was dull? Unlike the Premiership, which Manchester United won at a canter, the race for the Italian title has rarely been so exciting. For the first time in years, three teams (leaders Roma, 72 points; Juventus, 70; and Lazio, 69) will enter the final sprint virtually neck-and-neck, for what should be a dramatic end to the season.

Exciting? Terrifying, more like. In normal circumstances, the football authorities would be relishing today's denouement. In the present climate, however, added drama is the last thing they want. The League may have produced an enthralling finale but, following 12 months of increased violence and racism in and around the stadiums, all the organisers are really hoping for is the final whistle. Their wishes were less than 10 minutes away from being realised last Sunday, until a late goal prolonged this annus horribilis.

Eight minutes were all that stood between Roma and their first Serie A title since 1983. Leading lowly Napoli 2-1 and in control of the match, the Scudetto looked all but won. Ecstatic Roma fans were revving up their scooters in anticipation of a lengthy parade through the streets of the capital. Even the editors of the Gazzetta dello Sport were so confident that Fabio Capello's men would be champions that they accidentally let a pre-prepared insert containing the story of Roma's victorious season slip into some Monday editions.

As it happens, Napoli found an equaliser and, rather than party the night away, thousands of disappointed Roma fans descended on Naples and ransacked parts of the town. The troubling images of the Ultras (the diehard Roma supporters) in battles with armed police offered a chilling reminder of all that is wrong with the present Italian football culture. There were 58 injured, including one police officer who was stabbed on a train carrying Roma "fans", as well as millions of lira worth of damage. Most seriously tarnished, though, is the image of the game. "Life was a lot easier when Milan ruled the world in the 80s and 90s," remarks Luca Taidelli of Gazzetta. "The outcome of matches was more predictable and crowds were less volatile."

Observers are particularly disappointed that the troubles have increased just as Serie A has become a more open and exciting championship. Despite large television deals, putting bums on seats remains the priority for most clubs, but violence and racist chanting have driven many would-be supporters away. "It is a serious problem," admits the Lazio chairman, Sergio Cragnotti. "We have to address these issues immediately or we will be in danger of losing a very valuable commodity."

On the field, Italian football is again offering the most thrilling climax of any European league. The championship has gone to the wire for the third year running (in 1999 Milan pipped Lazio; last season Lazio pipped Juventus; and now both Lazio and Juventus can pip Roma), with three teams entering the deciding 90 minutes with a chance of claiming the top prize. The permutations are numerous, but one simple fact remains: Roma will be crowned champions if they beat Parma.

Easier said than done. Although Parma are already assured of Champions' League football next season (they cannot be caught in fourth place), they are unlikely to field a weakened team. Not only will several of the stars be playing for their future at the club, but others will be saying their farewells including Lilian Thuram, the Juventus-bound France defender, who was a Manchester United target.

The coaches of Juventus and Lazio, Carlo Ancelotti and Dino Zoff, have been turning up the heat over the last few days, even suggesting that Parma will not be focused on the game. "Rubbish," said Fabio Cannavaro, the Parma defender, "we'll give it our all. We have no intention of just making up the numbers."

Roma are the clear favourites but, were Gabriel Batistuta's team-mates to slip up, Juventus would be best placed to pounce. Of the two outsiders, they have the easier match, at home to Atalanta, who have nothing to play for. "You never know," the Juve coach, Ancelotti, said. "We faltered last year, and this time all the pressure will be on Roma."

The defending champions, Lazio, travel to Lecce, who need a win to guarantee their Serie A survival. The best Zoff's men can hope for is a play-off for the title, so they may throw caution to the wind. Either way, after the slump which led to Sven Goran Eriksson's exit, the club directors are sure to be satisfied with third place.

They will be without their Argentinian midfielder, Juan Sebastian Veron. The player, another recent target for Manchester United is "psychologically shaken" by the passport scandal which culminated on Friday with the league's prosecutor recommending he be banned for two years.