Rivalry renews in a changed reality

Tonight’s Champions League encounter between Juventus and Barcelona was always bound to be tasty and it has been given extra spice by the scandal that has erupted over the past week about alleged Italian involvement in matchfixing in Spain, writes David Shonfield.

Rivalry renews in a changed reality

This tie has been billed as a rerun of the 2015 final — the champions of Italy against the champions of Spain. The reality is different.

The same men are in charge of the two sides, Max Allegri and Luis Enrique, and Barcelona are likely to field most of the same players who came out on top two years ago. Juventus, however, are a changed team apart from their defence, and even at the back they can now call on Giorgio Chiellini, who missed that match in Berlin.

Compared to 2015, Barcelona seem slightly weaker, although they still have the same capacity to destroy any opposition. Xavi has gone and for this game they are missing their midfield mainstay, Sergio Busquets, because of suspension.

Two of their useful backups — Arda Turan and Rafinha — have been out injured and on Saturday against Malaga they paid the price. Without Gerard Piqué and Ivan Rakitic, both suspended, they lacked options and went down 2-0 in a game they needed to win to go level with Real Madrid at the top of the table.

Their fearsome attack misfired for much of the game and eventually a frustrated Neymar collected his second yellow card. It was exactly the build-up Barcelona did not want to tonight’s game, and to their showdown with Madrid in a fortnight’s time.

The Champions League remains the priority for both sides, but that match at the Bernabeu on April 23 also looms large, because Real Madrid have a game in hand.

Juventus are in a far more comfortable position. They have two testing games next month — the Turin derby and away to their nearest rivals, Roma — but they still lead Serie A by six points. Compared to 2015, when they won the title by a 17-point margin, this has been a more demanding season, but they remain strong favourites to win their sixth consecutive title and so set a new Italian record.

Allegri’s side seem stronger than ever in their own stadium. They have a 100% record in the league this season, and their last home Champions League defeat was against Bayern Munich exactly four years ago.

Back then, Antonio Conte was still their manager, and Bayern’s opening goal was scored by Mario Mandzukic, who is due to start for Juventus tonight on the left in a 4-2-3-1 formation led by Gonzalo Higuain.

Juve have lost three big players since 2015 — Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal, and Paul Pogba — so their midfield is clearly weaker than it was. However their attack is more potent now because as well as Higuain and Mandzukic, they have Paulo Dybala as playmaker. And the 23-year-old Argentinian can finish as well as create.

When Palermo sold Dybala to Juventus two years ago for €40m there was the inevitable talk of ‘the next Messi’. There are similarities in style, and Dybala is another baby-faced assassin, but sensibly he has played down comparisons.

“I am Dybala and I want only to be Dybala,” he said yesterday. But this is the first chance to compare the two, and it gives the game some additional spice.

Which brings us to last week’s matchfixing scandal, in which the unknowing beneficiaries were Barcelona’s second team, 12-0 winners against Eldense in Spain’s Segunda B — the third tier of Spanish football.

The game finished in bizarre circumstances, with some Eldense players in tears on the pitch, and their striker, Cheikh Saad — surprisingly dropped half an hour before kick-off — turning to social media to denounce the result as a fraud.

Spanish newspaper El Confidencial has since alleged a plot by Eldense’s newly installed Italian management to fix a series of match in the interests of a betting consortium involving Chinese businessmen and the Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia.

Among the allegations are that the new management imported 20 players in January and required them to pay if they wanted to be picked. The Italians have now been dismissed and Eldense’s owners have called in the police and football authorities to investigate.

It all sounds bizarre. But those concerned have a history of dubious involvement with clubs in Italy’s lower divisions, where a police investigation codenamed Dirty Soccer has led to three rounds of fines and points deductions over the past two years.

Is there really a mafia or Chinese involvement? Possibly. But the real issue is why it is so easy to corrupt football’s lower leagues in Italy and Spain.

The answer is basically that there are clubs without resources and players who can go months without being paid. The contrast with Juventus and Barcelona could hardly be greater.

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