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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Of all the major leagues in Europe, Serie A is entitled to think of itself as the most resilient. In the 21st century, it has had ruinous scandals. It has seen titles confiscated. And it has come back.
As Italian league football resumes in the wake of the coronavirus shutdown it is appropriate to remember that calcio has a way of weathering crises, if not always quietly, and finding a way through.
And Serie A is the league where time often seems to stand still. A three-month pause looks short when you consider that, in the 2019-20 Serie A story so far, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been winning matches for AC Milan - just as he was doing a decade ago. Cristiano Ronaldo has been defying gravity, and age, with athletic leaps into the sky to head improbable goals.
And this Serie A is a place where Mario Balotelli can still find a new club to fall in love with, and then fall out with.
The return to action this weekend of Italy’s top division is perhaps the most ambitious Project Restart in elite European football.
The north of the country was the continent’s epicentre of the pandemic for a lethal, terrifying period in early spring. Cities and regions were closed off from one another, hospitals and cemeteries overwhelmed.
Towards one of the great monuments of Italian football, San Siro, an accusing finger was also pointed. Atalanta’s victory over Valencia in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 match has become as much a historic milestone for the fairytale rise of Atalanta as a medical exhibit.
“That match”, to which over 43,000 travelled on February 19 from Bergamo to San Siro, the club’s borrowed home for Uefa games, was a “biological bomb”, Bergamo mayor Giorgio Gori said later, when his city was suffering the most concentrated Covid-19 infection-rate in Europe.
Four months later, league football, without crowds, will gingerly return to Bergamo, where Atalanta will take on Sassuolo intent on preserving their place in the top four, knowing their inspiring underdog triumphs carry an extra resonance now, bringing some joy to a bruised, grieving city.
There will be echoey, behind-closed-doors football at San Siro, where Internazionale try to remount a title challenge that looked vigorous until the middle of February. Inter had held first place in the table for more weeks than champions and current league leaders Juventus until then, but lost twice in succession to end a 16-game unbeaten run.
Nor was their return to action in last weekend’s Coppa Italia semi-final any less exasperating for head coach Antonio Conte: They led early against Napoli, then let slip their advantage; the story of their season.
Napoli’s victory over Juve in Wednesday night’s Coppa Italia final acts as a refreshing curtain-raiser to Serie A’s return, and a signal that Juventus are vulnerable.
“Our fitness levels are not at their peak, and we are struggling to get past opponents in our duels,” observed Maurizio Sarri, anxious that his first season as Juventus head coach might yet finish as Juventus’s first season since 2011-12 without a scudetto.
Inter, nine points behind them in third place, may have too much catching up to do, but Lazio, a point behind in second, will be boosted by the sight of Juve, and Ronaldo, looking a little sluggish.
Lazio’s stealthy pursuit of a possible first title in 20 years is, like Atalanta’s march to the last eight in Europe, a marked detour from the usual pattern, and the meeting of those two clubs, the highest scorers in the division by a distance, next Wednesday looks like a highlight of the first week of the resumption.
There will be intrigue, too, around Balotelli, whose romantic return to Brescia, where he grew up, has soured, with the club in open, tetchy dispute with the Italy international, who looks unlikely to be featuring in their apparently doomed battle against relegation.
AC Milan, seventh, will have to wait to see Ibrahimovic - who rejoined the club in January but suffered a calf problem once training restarted last month - galvanising their bid to qualify for Europe.
The Swede, 38, will likely say his last farewell to Serie A, and perhaps to elite club football when this, his longest season, ends. But he knows the possibility of Serie A in 2019-20 being completed at all is a bonus.
Updated: June 19, 2020 08:26 AM
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