Serie A - Juve set to dominate against ugly backdrop

Title holders Juventus look set for further dominance as Serie A kicks off at the weekend against an ugly backdrop of match-fixing suspensions and racism.

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Serie A - Juve set to dominate against ugly backdrop
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Carlos Tevez celebrates the Supercup (Reuters)

Juve, champions for the last two seasons, have been further strengthened by Carlos Tevez's arrival from Manchester City and sounded a warning last Sunday by thumping Lazio 4-0 in the season-opening Supercup.

The match also illustrated Serie A's deep-rooted problems as it was marred by racist abuse from the stands while Lazio were missing captain Stefano Mauri as he began a six-month suspension related to a match-fixing scandal.

Also suffering from dilapidated stadiums, financial problems and hooliganism, Serie A has lost prestige over the years with top players preferring to head to Spain, England and, increasingly, Germany and France.

Juventus coach Antonio Conte said last season that it would be years before an Italian team would win the Champions League again.

However, there have been some mildly encouraging signs during the summer, particularly the signing of Tevez by Juventus, his fellow Argentine Gonzalo Higuain by Napoli and prolific German Mario Gomez by Fiorentina. Those follow AC Milan's acquisition of Mario Balotelli in January.

Italian teams also showed themselves to be remarkably restrained in the transfer market.

Napoli, who also signed Dries Martins (PSV Eindhoven) and Raul Albiol (Real Madrid), were the biggest spenders but only after selling Uruguay forward Edinson Cavani to Paris St Germain for 64 million euros (£55m).

After qualifying twice for the Champions League in the last three seasons, Napoli, who host Bologna on Sunday (1845 GMT), are clearly determined to make another challenge for what would be only their third title.

However, with so many new players, and with Rafael Benitez having replaced Walter Mazzarri as coach, they remain an unknown quantity and may take time to find their feet.

Juventus, on the other hand, have kept the core of the team which has dominated over the last two seasons and have the benefit of playing in a stadium which they own, and is always full and noisy.

Juve, who finished nine points clear of Napoli last season, visit Sampdoria on Saturday for their opener (1845).

AC Milan, who are away to Hellas Verona on Saturday (1600), did well to finish third in a transitional season and could well provide a stiffer challenge, especially with Balotelli clearly settling in well after his move from Manchester City.

Neighbours Inter, who host Genoa (Sunday 1600), are a different kettle of fish and new coach Mazzarri will have a real task on his hands to lift them after last year's dismal ninth-place finish.

Fiorentina, with Gomez spearheading the attack, are also optimistic after finishing fourth last season, although they may struggle to overcome the departure of the gifted Stevan Jovetic in midfield.

Livorno, Sassuolo and Hellas Verona are the newcomers while Chievo (Giuseppe Sannino), AS Roma (Rudi Garcia) and Genoa (Fabio Liverani) are the other teams to have changed coach alongside Napoli and Inter.

Whatever happens on the field, Italian football looks set to struggle to rid itself of the scourges of racism and match-fixing.

Lazio fans systematically booed Juve's trio of black players late in the Supercup final and the summer also saw AC Milan's Kevin Constant walk off the pitch in protest at racist abuse during a friendly match, following the example of team mate Kevin-Prince Boateng in January.

Lazio were ordered to close the Curva Nord at the Stadio Olimpico, which hosts their hardcore fans, at the next home game under tougher regulations introduced under pressure from FIFA and UEFA.

Authorities also showed their teeth by suspending a player from amateur club Matera during a Coppa Italia match in July for 10 games after he racially insulted an opponent.

But it remains to be seen whether the new policy will have an effect in a country where racism is not confined to football.

Italy's first black minister Cecile Kyenge, a target of racist slurs since her appointment in April, had bananas thrown at her when she was making a speech at a party rally last month.

Two weeks before that, Roberto Calderoli, a senior parliamentarian in the Northern League party, likened her to an orangutan during a speech.

The summer has seen further fallout from the Calcioscommesse match-fixing scandal, which centred on attempts to manipulate matches in the second and lower tiers in the 2010/11 season, but also affected some Serie A and Coppa Italia matches.

Mauri was banned for six months after a tribunal ruled he had failed to report match-fixing in two matches in 2011. He has appealed against the decision.

Torino's Belgian goalkeeper Jean Francois Gillet was banned for three years and seven months in July as the Italian federation suspended 20 individuals in relation to two matches involving Bari in Serie B in 2008 and 2009.

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