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French Connection

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This weekend featured the rarest of occurrences in Italy with a terrible refereeing decision going against Juventus. The league leaders were denied a clear penalty in stoppage time of Saturday’s 1-1 home draw with Genoa, but the controversy was overshadowed somewhat by news from the transfer market, as the Bianconeri sought to add the one missing piece to their squad.  

The absence of a top class striker has long been considered the Achilles heel for a Juventus side that harbors real aspirations of an extended Champions League run, and after weeks of speculation surrounding Athletic Bilbao hitman Fernando Llorente, the Old Lady finally got its man... sort of. The Spanish international has agreed to join Juventus, but not until the summer.  

Immediate help is needed, however, with the Champions League knockout stage looming and Napoli emerging as a serious threat in Serie A, so in steps 33-year-old Nicolas Anelka fresh off a tour of duty in China. The Frenchman who began his career with Paris Saint-Germain and recently spent a week training with Carlo Ancelotti’s side will join Juventus for the remainder of the campaign.

It represents an underwhelming acquisition for Bianconeri supporters who likely would have preferred Shanghai Shenhua’s other star, Didier Drogba. Anelka is a significant upgrade over Nicklas Bendtner, and may complement the likes of Mirko Vucinic and Alessandro Matri, but the former Real Madrid, Chelsea and Arsenal striker falls short of being a game-changer.   

The Turin giants were even linked with Edinson Cavani in recent days, but club director Beppe Marotta made it clear the Uruguayan was never a serious option. Llorente did seem destined to arrive this January, and the inability to bring him on board right away could prove costly for Juventus.

The 27-year-old is in the midst of a lost season at Bilbao, having been banished to the bench by manager Marcelo Bielsa after declaring his intentions to leave the club. But Llorente managed 35 La Liga goals in the previous two campaigns, and has been a fixture in the Spain squad for several years. He will benefit immensely from a change of scenery and move to a bigger stage.  

Anelka should also relish a return to the spotlight, but he remains one of the biggest enigmas in world football and hasn’t produced a relevant Champions League moment since scoring for Madrid against Bayern Munich in both semifinal legs back in 1999-2000. Counting on Anelka to elevate Juventus into the same class as Barcelona, Bayern and Manchester United is a risky proposition at best.

Marco Borriello came back to haunt his former club this weekend by scoring Genoa’s equalizer shortly after Fabio Quagliarella had given the Old Lady the advantage. Antonio Conte was justifiably livid later on when referee Marco Guida -- revealed to be a Napoli supporter following the match – ignored defender Andreas Granqvist’s obvious handling of a cross from Stephan Lichtsteiner.

Tensions are high in Turin, as Juventus has dropped points in three of four league matches this calendar year. Napoli is back within three points after Cavani continued his irrepressible form by notching the winner in a 2-1 victory over Parma. It was the first home defeat of the campaign for Roberto Donadoni’s side, and the league-leading 18th goal of the season for the hottest striker on the planet.

Cavani may well run away with the Capocannoniere race, but Stephan El Shaarawy did rediscover his scoring touch in AC Milan’s 1-0 victory over Atalanta on Sunday. The Rossoneri have climbed all the way to fifth in the table after leap-frogging Fiorentina this weekend, and are just six points removed from a Champions League spot. Vincenzo Montella’s side suffered a 2-1 defeat away to Catania.

Elsewhere, Lazio’s 16-match unbeaten run in all competitions came to an end, as the Biancocelesti fell 1-0 at home to Chievo courtesy of a goal from Alberto Paloschi. Udinese further solidified itself in the top half of the table with a 1-0 victory over Siena, and a last-gasp equalizer by Thiago Ribeiro salvaged a 1-1 draw for Cagliari against Palermo in a derby between two clubs battling relegation.   

Some Other Thoughts:

*Inter-Milan continues to make news by unloading players, as young Brazilian Philippe Coutinho is set to follow Wesley Sneijder out the door after completing a move to Liverpool. The 20-year-old generated plenty of buzz in the preseason following a successful loan spell with Espanyol, and many predicted he would emerge as a key player for the Nerazzurri.

But Coutinho started just three Serie A games this season, failing to make much of an impression, and will seek to kick start his career in England. Sneijder was hoping to join the Reds, but instead finally accepted an offer from Galatasaray. His now former teammates were held to a disappointing 2-2 draw by suddenly surging Torino this past weekend at the San Siro.

*A once promising campaign has spiraled out of control for Roma with defensive problems proving too difficult to overcome, even for a side boasting the most potent attack in Italy. The Giallorossi came from behind to salvage a 3-3 draw away to Bologna, and were very fortunate to escape defeat after Alessandro Diamanti rattled the woodwork in the final minute.

*Mauro Icardi enjoyed a memorable Sunday, finding the back of the net four times in Sampdoria’s 6-0 demolition of Pescara. The Blucerchiati honored club president Riccardo Garrone who passed away this past week, and put forth a performance to make him proud. Sampdoria has lost only once in its last four league games, and is slowly distancing itself from the relegation zone.