New-look Juve await resurgent Inter
Fit-again Claudio Marchisio could be restricted to starting on the bench as Massimiliano Allegri’s new-look Juventus bid to stretch their 27-game unbeaten run at home against Inter Milan on Sunday.
Allegri has both midfielder Marchisio and key defender Andrea Barzagli back from injury lay-offs that have hampered their bid for a record sixth straight Serie A title.
After conceding only two defeats in a tough two-month period, the Turin giants host Stefano Pioli’s resurgent Inter armed with a four-point lead on Roma in second, and a game in hand on their five closest pursuers.
But although reportedly fit to start, Marchisio isn’t needed so desperately yet.
Juventus have run riot in the past three games, all wins, in which injuries to defenders forced Allegri to move away from his preferred 3-5-2 to a more offensive 4-2-3-1.
And from the fans, there have been few grumbles.
Despite Juve being outplayed during a 2-1 defeat at Fiorentina a fortnight ago, striker Gonzalo Higuain has hit the net six times in his past five league outings.
In the past three games the Argentine has benefited from the three-pronged support of Juan Cuadrado, Paulo Dybala and Mario Mandzukic.
And with niggling doubts on Marchisio, and Sami Khedira and Cuadrado offering flexibility in midfield, Allegri is expected to deploy roughly the same front line Sunday.
It looks ominous for Inter, who hope to secure their second successive win over the Turin giants following their 2-1 San Siro success last September.
Inter last beat Juventus in Turin in November 2012, yet Pioli’s men are on an eight-match winning streak and exciting new Inter midfielder Roberto Gagliardini says Nerazzurri hopes of another exploit are high.
“We have the belief that we can go there and take the game to them,” Gagliardini, who joined Inter on an 18-month loan deal from Atalanta, told Inter Channel.
“It’s going to be my first match against Juventus and it will obviously be difficult. They’re the strongest team in the league but we’re going there looking for a result.
“A win would send a message to the rest of the league about our top three ambitions.”
Napoli will leapfrog Roma — who host Fiorentina Tuesday in a fixture moved due to security concerns — into second place to sit three points behind Juventus with a win at Bologna in Saturday’s only fixture.
Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri welcomes defender Kalidou Koulibaly back from the African Cup of Nations although the fans’ biggest cheer could be reserved for Polish striker Arkaduisz Milik, who has fully recovered from a cruciate knee ligament injury suffered last October.
Belgian midfielder Dries Mertens has deputised admirably well after being pushed up to replace Milik, taking his goals tally to 13 in the process, and is likely to start what should be an enticing fixture.
Bologna v Napoli traditionally produces fireworks, the sides claiming four wins apiece and playing to a 2-2 draw in their last nine meetings at the Dall’Ara stadium.
After dropping a “precious two points” in a disappointing draw with Palermo last weekend, Napoli midfielder Marek Hamsik said: “Not winning that game was a blow, but our focus has be right on the next game, against Bologna.”
AC Milan coach Vincenzo Montella meanwhile faces a defensive crisis ahead of Saturday’s San Siro clash with Sampdoria, with Luca Antonelli and Mattia De Sciglio both ruled out for up to a month and compounding woes after midfieler Giacomo Bonaventura’s season was ended by a torn thigh muscle.
Successive losses to Napoli and Udinese have battered Milan’s Euro qualification hopes and they sit seventh, 14 points behind Juventus and eight points behind Napoli in third.
Lazio are in the same boat, consecutive defeats to Juventus and Chievo dropping Simone Inzaghi’s tiring side to fifth at 11 points behind Juve ahead of Sunday’s trip to Pescara.
Fixtures (all GMT)
Bologna v Napoli (1945)
AC Milan v Sampdoria (1130)
Atalanta v Cagliari
Chievo v Udinese
Empoli v Torino
Genoa v Sassuolo
Pescara v Lazio (all 1400)
Palermo v Crotone (1700)
Juventus v Inter Milan (1945)
Roma v Fiorentina (1945)