THE sight of a smiling Mario Mandzukic hurling a ball of snow at a team-mate in the ice-cool Vinovo commune near Turin reflected the mood in Juventus camp.
A busy pre-season had witnessed Paul Pogba’s departure and Gonzalo Higuain’s arrival, and a few other transfers, but the Old Lady continue to be dominant, sitting seven points clear atop Serie A and winning the unofficial ‘winter champions’ title.
They should find Doha pleasant, not just because of its weather, but due to a self-belief that they can retain the Italian Super Cup, beating a fast-improving AC Milan at the Al Sadd Stadium on Friday. Sealing the first title of the season should be an added reason to make merry before they take the Christmas break.
Juve had lost 5-6 on penalties to Napoli at the same venue two years ago when Qatar hosted the event before. Napoli rode on Gonzalo Higuain’s shoulders back then, as the Argentinian striker hit a brace to cancel out his countryman Carlos Tevez’s twin strike and converted in the shoot-out as well.
Juventus will expect him to score this time again, having captured him on a €90m deal from Napoli in the pre-season. There are several other big names in the Turin side, be it Gianluigi Buffon, Sami Khedira or Leonardo Bonucci, who last Monday decided to extend his stay at the club. They are a balanced side and head-to-head record too favours them.
But coach Massimiliano Allegri knows all that counts for nothing in the game of football, especially in one-off ties. Napoli had proved it in Doha and a defeat at the hands of Milan would be the last thing he wants. The Rossoneri, who did not give him many good memories as coach, had handed Juve a 1-0 defeat at San Siro in Serie A last October. He is aware they are capable of inflicting more pain on him.
Milan are not their old self. The last time they toured Doha, under coach Carlo Ancelotti, to play Al Sadd captain Jafaal Rashid’s testimonial match in 2009, they comprised greats like Ronaldinho, Kaka, David Beckham and Paolo Maldini, to name but only a few. They declined gradually and Allegri agonisingly oversaw a waning side.
When Milan line up for the Juventus tie, they, unlike in the glory days, will not have many star names of world football. But those who have followed their games of late know that they are a bunch of hungry players who are ready to give their all with intensity as hallmark.
Former Roma striker Vincenzo Montella, who took charge in June, has helped them regain their confidence. And Milan fans believe their team can improve on their current fifth-place league standing.
Montella knows a Doha triumph should make the players far more confident. It should be what the Chinese consortium, which paid a second deposit of €100m as part of its expected takeover in March, too would want. Milan have everything to play for.