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Verona coach Juric denies Balotelli received racist abuse

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Rome (AFP)

Hellas Verona coach Ivan Juric insisted on Sunday his team's fans did not racially abuse Mario Balotelli after the Brescia striker threatened to leave the pitch after apparently hearing racist chanting from home supporters.

Balotelli scored Brescia's goal in a 2-1 defeat that leaves them in the relegation zone, but that was overshadowed by his spat with Verona supporters, who have a notorious reputation in Italy for hard-right politics and open racism.

"I'm not afraid to say it, nothing happened today. No racists chants, nothing at all," Croat Juric told Sky Sport.

"Racist abuse disgusts me, I get called a filthy gypsy all the time. But there was nothing today, not even a little bit, nothing. To say otherwise is a lie.

"He's a fantastic player but where were the racist chants?"

With his Brescia side a goal down to Eddie Salcedo's powerful header Balotelli, who has been a frequent target for racist chants during his three spells playing in his home country, booted the ball into the crowd after around an hour and charged towards Verona fans.

Pointing towards his ears, the former AC Milan and Manchester City striker then tried to leave the pitch, only to be stopped by his teammates and Verona players.

The match was suspended for a few minutes before a message was read out from the stadium loudspeaker threatening that both teams would leave the field if there was a repeat of any abuse, a message that was whistled loudly by a large number of the home fans.

The Gazzetta Dello Sport said that Balotelli left the Stadio Bentegodi without comment but Brescia coach Eugenio Corini told reporters afterwards that Balotelli "heard something" from the stands before he reacted.

Verona's president Maurizio Setti said that his club's supporters were "light-hearted, not racist" and were a crowd with "real sport in its DNA", but Balotelli's agent Mino Raiola told AFP he was backing his player.

"We are with Mario and we are against all forms of racism. Racists are just ignorant," Raiola said.

- 'Hostile relationship' -

With the game back underway Matteo Pessina doubled the hosts' lead when he squeezed home a neat finish with nine minutes left, before Balotelli pulled one back with a superb curling long-range effort.

Verona jumped up to ninth after the win, level on 15 points with Fiorentina ahead of their match with Parma.

A number of black players have been racially abused by supporters in Italy in the opening weeks of the season, with Milan midfielder Franck Kessie targeted by Verona fans in September and Inter Milan striker Romelu Lukaku abused at Cagliari, also serial offenders.

Balotelli has a particularly hostile relationship with Verona fans, who six years ago targeted him with ironic cheers after then-mayor of the city Flavio Tosi called him a "troublemaker" who brought racist abuse on himself.

Elsewhere surprise package Cagliari moved up to fifth after winning 2-0 at Atalanta, who are the league's leading scorers but drew a blank after the sending off of playmaker Josip Ilicic.

The Sardinian side are now level with fourth-placed Atalanta on 21 points after Mario Pasalic's first half own goal and a Christian Oliva strike in the 58th minute.

Both sides are a point behind Roma, who stayed third following their 2-1 win over Napoli on Saturday which extends their unbeaten run in the league to six games despite a weeks-long injury crisis.

Paulo Fonseca's team remain seven points behind league leaders Juventus, who stay top thanks to Matthijs de Ligt's derby winner in their 1-0 triumph at Torino on Saturday.

The Dutch international's first Juve goal since arriving from Ajax in the summer kept Inter Milan at bay by a single point despite Romelu Lukaku's brace sealing a late 2-1 win at Bologna and taking the Belgian's Serie A tally to nine in 11 games.

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