Big game heroes AC Milan face test of mettle against lesser lights
Last weekend's 1-0 win at Napoli allowed them to reclaim top spot.
AC Milan’s Italian head coach Stefano Pioli celebrates after winning after winning the Italian Serie A football match against SSC Napoli. Pioli’s Milan will next face Empoli on Saturday. (Tiziana FABI / AFP)
AC Milan host Empoli on Saturday with a slender lead over their Serie A title rivals and a hoodoo to bust against the league’s lesser lights.
Last weekend’s 1-0 win at Napoli allowed them to reclaim top spot and was another in a series of strong performances against the duo they are battling for the Scudetto.
It came after last month’s Milan derby triumph which was also powered by Olivier Giroud and an impressive display against their local rivals in the first leg of their Italian Cup semi-final, which however was not rewarded with a goal.
But the gap separating Milan from Inter is only two points because of their recent struggles against teams they are odds-on favourite to beat.
The win at Napoli was preceded by draws with bottom side Salernitana — when they were leading after only four minutes — and Udinese, another team fighting the drop.
Those two draws allowed Napoli to claim the summit going into the last round of fixtures and they have also lost at home to Spezia, albeit in bizarre circumstances, since the turn of the year.
AC Milan, who are missing the suspended Theo Hernandez on Saturday, have Cagliari, Bologna, Torino and Genoa coming after Saturday and chance to turn the screws if they can start treating lesser teams like they do the big boys.
“Mentality makes a huge difference, some matches there is a spark and others it’s not there,” said coach Stefano Pioli ahead of his team’s win at Napoli.
“It also depends a bit on tactics because if you don’t have any space it’s difficult to play, but if a team attacks you there are gaps that allow you to be more effective.”
Inter had the good news on Thursday that Marcelo Brozovic should be available for Sunday night’s match at Torino after having to leave the field early in their midweek Champions League exit at Anfield.
Brozovic was forced off with a muscle issue with a quarter of an hour remaining in Inter’s 1-0 win over Liverpool, which wasn’t enough to overturn a 2-0 home defeat by the Reds, with his team already down to 10 men.
He is a crucial to the way Simone Inzaghi’s team play and was one of the reasons behind Inter’s creditable performances in both legs against Jurgen Klopp’s red-hot side.
Juventus meanwhile have a 14-match unbeaten league run to protect when they travel to Sampdoria, with a treatment table piled high with players and a Champions League decider with Villarreal on the horizon.
One of those players out for the trip to the coast is Paulo Dybala, whose contract renewal saga is still dragging on almost two months after it last bubbled up into the public domain.
The Argentina international’s current deal with Juve expires at the end of the season and he has reportedly been waiting since October to sign a renewal which would bump his salary up to eight million euros a season ($9.1 million), plus a further two million euros of bonuses.
A meeting between Juve and Dybala’s representatives to discuss his contract was delayed again this week, and with the 28-year-old free to negotiate with other clubs, the possibility of him leaving looks more likely with each passing week.
There is some good news for Massimiliano Allegri, with Alex Sandro and Mattia De Sciglio’s return to action helping a Juve backline still missing Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini.
Player to watch: Gianluca Caprari
Alongside striking sensation Giovanni Simeone, Caprari has been the star of a Verona team defying expectations under Igor Tudor and will be a major threat against title-chasing Napoli on Sunday.
Scorer of 10 goals this season — the same as fellow playmaker Antonin Barak — Caprari has netted six of those since the turn of the year, while he also has seven assists to his name.
3 – The points gap separating Milan, Inter and Napoli.
14 – Juve’s unbeaten run of matches has them as an outside shout for the title.
Fixtures (times GMT)
Salernitana v Sassuolo, Spezia v Cagliari (both 1400), Sampdoria v Juventus (1700), AC Milan v Empoli (1945)
Fiorentina v Bologna (1130), Verona v Napoli (1400), Atalanta v Genoa, Udinese v Roma (1700), Torino v Inter Milan (1945)
Lazio v Venezia (1945)