• Juve faces tricky first test in title defense

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    n Gonzalo Higuain AFP PHOTO

    Gonzalo Higuain
    AFP PHOTO

    ROME: After a busy close season in the transfer market, Juventus kick off their bid for a record sixth consecutive Serie A title on Saturday (Sunday in Manila) by entertaining Fiorentina.

    The visit of Paulo Sousa’s squad, fifth last season, will provide a tricky first examination for a Juve side that has seen change aplenty in the close season.

    Coach Massimiliano Allegri let talismanic midfielder Paul Pogba depart for Manchester United in a record 105m euros ($118m) to fund a broader strengthening of a squad seeking to conquer Europe after five years of domestic domination.

    New faces include striker Gonzalo Higuain, prized away from Napoli after his 36-goal 2015-16 campaign, former Roma midfielder Miralem Pjanic, Brazilian wing-back Dani Alves and Mehdi Benatia, the Morocco defender who has joined on loan from Bayern Munich.

    Of the new arrivals, only Pjanic and Alves look certain to start on Saturday with Allegri expected to give Higuain more time to get in shape after he returned from his summer break looking distinctly overweight.

    Benatia knows he will have a tough time breaking into a Juve back three comprised of three of the world’s most admired defenders, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini.

    But he insists that is partly what drew him to the club.

    “There are great expectations. Apparently people are discounting the outcome (of the title race) but it is never that easy,” he said.

    Napoli fans seething
    Juve triggered Higuain’s release clause with a 90-million-euro ($102m) bid.

    The Argentina international’s goalscoring record cannot be disputed but skeptics question whether he will fit Allegri’s 3-5-2 system after thriving as a traditional number nine with two wide men in Napoli’s 4-3-3.

    Allegri also has Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic and the deeper-lying Paulo Dybala at his disposal and Benatia believes the latter could be a perfect foil for his compatriot Higuain.

    “Up front, we are fortunate to have great players. If Higuain and Dybala manage to hit the same numbers as last year and we do our job at the back, we will be close to the title.”

    Roma, third last season, are also in action on Saturday, with veteran club captain Francesco Totti, 40 next month, beginning his 24th season as part of the squad which will entertain Udinese at the Stadio Olimpico.

    AC Milan, in the process of being taken over by new Chinese owners, entertain Torino on Sunday while neighbors Inter travel to Chievo for their first competitive fixture since Frank de Boer replaced former boss Roberto Mancini.

    Napoli fans still seething over Higuain’s departure will be anxiously awaiting news of whether Kalidou Koulibaly is included in the squad for Sunday’s trip to newcomers Pescara.

    Outstanding with Napoli as they finished runners-up last term, Koulibaly is the subject of interest from Chelsea, who were reported this week to have tabled a 60-million-pound ($79m) bid for the Senegal defender.

    Balotelli bid?
    Pescara secured a return to the top flight after a three-year absence by winning the Serie B play-off.

    Among the three new boys, Cagliari look best equipped to survive in the top flight.

    The Sardinian club has retained the bulk of the squad that topped Serie B last season and added experienced figures including veteran Portugal defender Bruno Alves.

    Cagliari begin their campaign on Sunday at Genoa, whose new Croatian coach Ivan Juric joined from another promoted outfit, Crotone.

    Based in the southern region of Calabria, tiny Crotone make their Serie A debut at Bologna, the only one of the 2015 promoted clubs to survive last season.

    From one of Italy’s poorest regions, Crotone play in a less than 10,000-capacity stadium but club president Raffaele Vrenna has big ambitions.

    He said this week he wants to bring a top player to the sole of Italy’s boot and suggested Mario Balotelli could fit the bill.

    “We have a good record of revitalising players who have fallen by the wayside, so why not go for Balotelli?” he said.

    AFP

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