Wounded Inter faces Napoli as title race hots up

Simone Inzaghi’s side lost 2-1 to third-placed AC Milan last weekend, and Napoli’s victory at Venezia narrowed the gap between the top three to one point.

Simone Inzaghi was on Tuesday handed a one-match ban for a tunnel tirade directed at referee Marco Guida in the aftermath of a painful Milan derby defeat.   -  REUTERS

Wounded champion Inter Milan faces the second major threat to its Serie A title defence in a week when it travels to Napoli on Saturday, as one of Europe's tightest title races heats up.

Simone Inzaghi’s side lost 2-1 to third-placed AC Milan last weekend, and Napoli’s victory at Venezia narrowed the gap between the top three to one point.

Inter still has the edge, sitting top by a point with a game in hand, but the pressure is on to get a result in Naples, where defeat could mean a slide to third place.

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Juventus, which is on a 10-match unbeaten run and now boast Serie A’s joint-top scorer Dusan Vlahovic, is creeping up in Inter's rear-view mirror, eight points off top, ahead of their key top-four clash with Atalanta.

Inter looked poised to cruise to the title as they put together a 14-match unbeaten league run, before Milan’s derby win changed the complexion of the table.

The champion bounced back with a commanding 2-0 Coppa Italia quarter-final win over AS Roma, but it travels to Naples with coach Inzaghi and defender Alessandro Bastoni suspended.

RETURNING CHAMPION

In contrast, Napoli is almost at full strength, with Cameroon midfielder Andre Zambo Anguissa and Senegal’s newly-crowned African champion Kalidou Koulibaly back from the Africa Cup of Nations.

The return of two key players, combined with striker Victor Osimhen’s recovery from injury, have bolstered hopes that the Neapolitan side could clinch their first Serie A crown since the Diego Maradona-inspired 1989-90 season.

"We have a lot of objectives and one is to win the league. Step by step, with determination, we can do it," Osimhen said after Napoli's fourth league win in a row in Venice.

Milan will be paying close attention to the game at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, before it hosts Sampdoria in the Sunday lunch-time kickoff.

Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri was eager to downplay his side’s ambitions this week, after the January arrivals of 80-million-euro man Vlahovic and midfielder Denis Zakaria sent enthusiasm spiralling.

Both debutants scored in a 2-0 win over Hellas Verona last weekend that sent Juve fourth at the expense of Atalanta, who suffered a shock home defeat to relegation battlers Cagliari.

“If you want to dream that’s fine, but I don’t like to. The top three are far ahead, given that Inter are potentially 11 points clear,” he said.

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“We are behind, and our league campaign will be about fighting with Atalanta from now until the end of the season.”

Atalanta sit two points behind Juve in fifth with a game in hand, but it earned two points in its last three league games and has lost star striker Duvan Zapata to injury.

Defeat here could cost the Bergamo club dearly in their quest to reach a fourth consecutive Champions League campaign.

Elsewhere, Europe-chasing Lazio, AS Roma and Fiorentina face Bologna, Sassuolo and Spezia respectively, while there is a high-stakes relegation battle at the other end of the table when the bottom two Genoa and Salernitana face off.

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