Soccer

Hellas Verona returns to Serie A with win over AC Milan

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The Canadian Press
8/24/2013 2:52:31 PM
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ROME -- Luca Toni scored twice as Hellas Verona beat AC Milan 2-1 Saturday to celebrate its return to Serie A after an 11-year absence as the Italian league opened with a shock.

It was more to form, meanwhile, as Juventus kicked off its bid for a third consecutive title with Carlos Tevez scoring in the 58th minute of a 1-0 win at Sampdoria, which beat the Bianconeri in both league meetings last season.

Juve didn't quite dominate like in its 4-0 rout of Lazio in last weekend's Super Cup but Antonio Conte's men showed the same poise and discipline of the past two seasons.

Tevez, Juve's big off-season acquisition from Manchester City, only had to tap in after taking a pass from Paul Pogba at the edge of the box on a rainy night at the Juventus Stadium.

At the other end, Juve's corp of quality defenders -- Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini -- cleared any danger.

It was a different story in Verona, where Andrea Poli put Milan ahead in the 14th minute following a pass from Mario Balotelli before the 1.96-meter (6-foot-5) Toni struck back with headers in the 30th and 53rd.

"There's no better way to start the season," Verona midfielder Massimo Donati said.

It was a disturbing result for Milan ahead of Wednesday's return-leg match with PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League playoffs. Milan also gave up a lead in the opening leg, drawing 1-1.

Last season, Milan never lost in Serie A after establishing a lead, winning 21 matches and drawing four.

"The explanation is simple: we played bad football and we played poorly as a squad," Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri said. "We needed to control the ball better. We played poorly and they deserved the victory.

"We need to play with more nastiness and more attentively," Allegri added. "After we scored we stopped playing. Even though he's 36, Toni fought like a lion."

The other eight matches of the opening weekend will be played Sunday, with last year's runner-up Napoli hosting Bologna and Inter Milan facing Genoa at the San Siro. Also, Lazio opens against Udinese with one end of its stadium closed as punishment for fan racism in the Super Cup.

There were concerns that Verona fans might direct racist chants at Balotelli but, with the issue discussed widely before the match, supporters responded by applauding him instead whenever he touched the ball -- albeit likely in an ironic manner.

"The fans offered a great response," Donati said.

After the final whistle, Milan fans grew unruly and began launching seats over a barrier at Verona supporters.

Verona won its only Serie A title in 1985 and has had the dishonour of watching neighbour Chievo Verona play in the top division for much of the last decade while it toiled in Serie B.

But a second-place result in Serie B last season earned Verona promotion and the signing of Toni in July to a one-year contract has already proved wise even though Daniele Cacia led the second division with 24 goals in 2012-13.

The 36-year-old Toni also scored on his debut when Verona beat Palermo 1-0 in the Italian Cup last weekend.

"He's decisive on dead balls and he's a decisive player for us," Verona coach Andrea Mandorlini said of Toni, who formerly played for Palermo, Fiorentina and Bayern Munich and was a member of the Italy squad that won the 2006 World Cup.

Balotelli had Milan's first chance nine minutes in with a shot from beyond the area that was blocked by goalkeeper Rafael. Balotelli might have done better by passing the ball to one of two teammates striding toward the goal and he was wise to pass to Poli five minutes later to set up a goal.

After collecting the pass, Poli dribbled in between two defenders and slotted the ball past Rafael.

After struggling in the opening 20 minutes, Verona began to assert itself more as the half wore on and Toni took advantage when Milan's defence lost track of him during a corner kick as the hosts equalized.

Toni also had a chance in the 36th with a bouncing shot that Milan goalkeeper Christian Abbiati couldn't control but a defender cleared the danger.

Still, it was Verona that came out in attack mode to start the second half and Abbiati had to leap high to tip over the bar a header from Bosko Jankovic in the 51st.

Two minutes later, Toni put Verona ahead with a header from the edge of the box as he leaped over defender Cristian Zapata for his 111th career goal in Serie A.

And in the 62nd, Abbiati had to punch away a dangerous cross to prevent Toni from doing any more damage.

Toni exited to a standing ovation when he was replaced by Cacia in the 85th. Cacia nearly made it 3-1 in the 89th but Abbiati was able to stop the attempt.

Balotelli grew frustrated and drew a yellow card for protests in the 90th.

There was also a last-minute card in Genoa, as Sampdoria defender Paolo Castellini was shown red for a hard foul on Stephan Lichtsteiner.

Luca Toni (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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