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Milan giants face off with title dreams on the line


Milan (AFP) – The San Siro awaits one of the biggest Milan derbies in years as champions Inter host their local rivals hoping to maintain a solid lead at the top of Serie A.

Inter are four points ahead of Milan heading into Saturday evening’s clash, which could be a turning point in Simone Inzaghi’s quest to retain the Nerazzurri’s title in his first, so far hugely impressive, year as coach.

His team are unbeaten in the league since mid-October, a 15-match run which contains just four draws, including one against Milan in the first derby of the season back in November.

It is the start of a big fortnight for Inter, with the visit of Roma in the Italian Cup on Tuesday followed by a trip to second-placed Napoli next weekend before Liverpool come to Milan for the first leg of an intriguing Champions League last-16 tie.

For Milan, Saturday’s match represents a key moment in their bid for a first Scudetto in over a decade. A defeat would leave them seven points back having played a game more, with Inter’s abandoned match with Bologna from January to be rescheduled for later this month.

Stefano Pioli’s side sit third, level on 49 points with Napoli who can take advantage of whatever result the Milan giants rustle up at Venezia on Sunday.

After their miserable stalemate with Juventus before the international break, Pioli said that his team need to win at the weekend if they want to “be close to Inter right to the end”.

Pioli is almost certain to be without starting centre-back Fikayo Tomori and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, with the latter still feeling the effects of an Achilles tendon injury.

– Crowds return –

The match will be one of the first to be played in front of a maximum half-full stadium after a couple of rounds with just 5,000 fans.

Stadium capacities have been a sticking point between Italy’s football authorities and the government all season, but last month health undersecretary Andrea Costa suggested that by the spring, Italian stadiums would be free to fill up.

Other disagreements within Serie A led president Paolo Dal Pino to resign on Tuesday.

Dal Pino stepped down ostensibly because he and his family are moving to California, but in his parting note he said he had been frustrated by an environment “resistent to change”.

Serie A, which will vote for a new president on Monday, has been openly hostile to the Italian FA’s insistence on changes to the league’s internal rules, such as letting votes pass with simple majorities.

On Monday, Italian football lost one of its most colourful character’s when Maurizio Zamparini, who sacked dozens of managers over more than three decades as a club owner, passed away at the age of 80.

Before their Serie C derby with Messina on Wednesday Palermo held a minute’s silence in honour of Zamparini, who as president oversaw the Sicilians’ first promotion to Serie A in 31 years and brought in a host of stars who took them into the previously unimaginable heights of European football.

Player to watch: Dusan Vlahovic

Signed to boost an attack which has so far scored just 34 times in their 23 fixtures, Vlahovic will make his Juventus debut on Sunday night against Verona, who also have one of Italy’s top-performing forwards in Giovanni Simeone.

The 22-year-old Vlahovic is locked on 17 league goals with Ciro Immobile at the top of the scoring charts and alongside fellow new arrival Denis Zakaria has been brought in to boost Juve’s bid for Champions League football.

Massimiliano Allegri’s side sit fifth, one point from the top four.

Key stats

4 – Inter’s points lead at the top of Serie A

40 – The number of managers ‘manager-eater’ Zamparini is estimated to have got through as Palermo owner.

Fixtures (all times GMT)

Saturday

Roma v Genoa (1400), Inter Milan v AC Milan (1700), Fiorentina v Lazio (1945)

Sunday

Atalanta v Cagliari (1130), Bologna v Empoli, Sampdoria v Sassuolo, Venezia v Napoli (all 1400), Udinese v Torino (1700), Juventus v Verona (1945)

Monday

Salernitana v Spezia (1945)

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