MILAN: Inter Milan will be looking over their shoulders at resurgent champions Juventus when they travel to Empoli on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila).
Roberto Mancini’s Serie A leaders spurned the chance to put daylight between themselves and the chasing pack when they suffered a shock 2-1 defeat at home to Lazio prior to the festive break, leaving them just one point ahead of Fiorentina and Napoli.
Fiorentina are away to Palermo and Napoli host Torino.
But it is Juve, aiming for a record-equaling fifth consecutive league crown, who could pose the biggest threat.
Juve’s disastrous start to the campaign is now firmly behind them and the Turin giants were the only side among the frontrunners to win their last two games before the festive break.
Indeed, a seven-game winning streak has hoisted Massimiliano Allegri’s men up to fourth at just three points behind Inter and the champions aim to make it eight against Verona in Turin, says midfielder Juan Cuadrado.
“It will be our most difficult game because it comes right after the holidays, but I’m sure we’ll start off on the right foot,” said the Colombian, who has become one of Juve’s most valuable players since joining earlier this season on loan from Chelsea.
As a first fixture of the year, it could not get any better for Juventus. Verona sit rock bottom with eight points from 17 games, meaning Gigi Delneri’s men are thinking more about how to stave off relegation and less about upsetting Italy’s most successful side of recent years.
“We’ll have to play aggressively, but we’ll be limited to what Juve allow us to do,” admitted Delneri.
“It will be them who dictate play and we’ll have to be smart enough to pounce on any mistakes they make.”
Given Juve’s chances of victory, Inter will be especially wary ahead of meeting an Empoli side brimming with confidence.
Empoli coach Marco Giampaolo and Inter handler Mancini may be at opposite ends of the pay scale in Serie A, but the former’s tactical nous, combined with the impressive seven-goal haul of veteran striker Massimo Maccarone has helped lift Empoli up to eighth place.
Yet Giampaolo, who earns the lowest salary in Italy’s top flight, admits that planning a strategy to beat Inter is problematic.
“Mancini changes things around a lot, his team formations and his players, so we have to be on our game even more than usual,” he told Sky Sport.
Braving the rain
Fiorentina’s title push shows no signs of abating and over 7,000 fans showed their appreciation by braving rainy weather conditions to watch the Viola’s first training session of 2016 in midweek.
Coach Paulo Sousa has welcomed Jakub Blaszczykowski back to the fray following the Polish midfielder’s three-month spell on the sidelines, while Nikola Kalinic and Josip Ilicic, who between them have hit 17 goals in as many games, are expected to start up front alongside Spaniard Borja Valero.
Palermo midfielder Mato Jajalo, however, has thrown down the gauntlet.
“Fiorentina play the best football in Italy, but we’ve been working hard this week and we want to start the year off with a win,” said Jajalo, who hit his first Serie A goal at Fiorentina last May.
With Gonzalo Higuain on a league-leading tally of 16 goals amid Napoli’s title charge, Naples had plenty to celebrate during the festive break and Torino visit the San Paolo with the task of handing Maurizio Sarri’s men their first home defeat of the season.
Fifth-placed Roma travel to Chievo with doubts on experienced midfielder Daniele De Rossi, who suffered an ankle injury in training earlier this week.