Inter’s lead up for grabs as Napoli lie in wait
Inter Milan’s Serie A lead will be on the line on Saturday when the champions travel to Napoli for another huge clash with a title rival.
Defeat in last weekend’s Milan derby pulled Simone Inzaghi’s Inter back to their pursuers, the gap between them and both second-placed Napoli and neighbours AC Milan cut to just a point before the big trip south.
With Milan, hosting Sampdoria on Sunday, in fine form after thumping Lazio 4-0 in the Italian Cup on Wednesday, Inter face the serious prospect of being dumped down to third should they lose at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona.
Inter did bounce back on Tuesday by beating Roma to set up another pair of Milan derbies in the two-leg semi-finals of the Italian Cup, but Inzaghi is in no doubt of the danger Napoli present to their title defence.
“We know that they’re a good team who kept hold of all their best players (in January). They’re a contender for the title,” said Inzaghi, who is suspended after ranting at referee Marco Guida in the stormy aftermath of the Milan derby.
Boosting Napoli’s chances of claiming top spot is the potential return of their African spine, with defensive lynchpin Kalidou Koulibaly and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa back in Italy from the Africa Cup of Nations. Star striker Victor Osimhen came back early and has found scoring form.
It was Osimhen’s strike, his first for the club since mid-October, last weekend at Venezia which set Napoli up for a bumper fixture with Inter.
Osimhen has to wear a special mask to play after smashing his cheekbone in a sickening clash of heads with Milan Skriniar the last time the two sides faced off in November, when Inter just held on for a thrilling 3-2 victory.
The 22-year-old showed no signs of playing with titanium implants in his cheekbone and eye socket when he crashed home a perfect header on the Venice lagoon and is ready for possibly the biggest match of his team’s season.
Juventus have a chance to cement their grip on a Champions League place on Sunday night when they take on top four rivals Atalanta in Bergamo.
January signings Dusan Vlahovic and Denis Zakaria fired Juve into fourth, two points above Atalanta, last weekend after Gian Piero Gasperini’s side slumped to a shock home defeat at the hands of lowly Cagliari.
Gasperini also lost centre forward Duvan Zapata for at least two months with a thigh injury, and with Josip Ilicic wrestling with mental health problems, Luis Muriel will bear the responsibility up front in a packed couple of weeks which includes their Europa League tie with Olympiakos.
The only sour note for Juve is captain Giorgio Chiellini’s calf injury, although Leonardo Bonucci will step in to make his first appearance since the winter break after recovering from a muscle problem.
Player to watch: Kalidou Koulibaly
Napoli are hoping for the return of rock Koulibaly, who captained Senegal to their first ever Africa Cup of Nations title last weekend.
Koulibaly arrived in Naples on Wednesday and should be available to start his first Napoli match since tearing a hamstring in a costly draw at Sassuolo at the start of December.
After his injury Napoli lost top spot in the league but are hoping for a return to the summit with Koulibaly holding off Italy’s best attack.
He has become such an admired figure in Naples that the city’s sport councillor Emmanuela Ferrante said she would like him to be given honorary citizenship.