SERIE A WEEKEND PREVIEW: Inter Milan boss Antonio Conte returns to his former stomping ground to face Juventus in front of empty stands as Italian fixture list is hit by coronavirus
- Five Serie A games will be played behind closed doors due to coronavirus
- Deadly epidemic has swept through parts of Italy which has affected fixtures
- Just six points separate third-placed Inter Milan and league leaders Juventus
Juventus host Inter Milan in the standout fixture of this weekend’s Serie A schedule but, as things stand, the top-of-the-table clash will be played out in front of empty stands.
The deadly coronavirus has affected the sporting calendar in Italy following more than 400 confirmed cases with no fewer than five games being played behind closed doors across the weekend.
It means Antonio Conte’s first return to his former stomping ground as Inter Milan manager will not include a reunion with fans who used to adore him.
Serie A leaders Juventus host rivals Inter Milan in the standout fixture of the weekend
Romelu Lukaku and Co will be hoping Inter can close the gap on the league leaders
Antonio Conte knows all about Juventus having managed them between 2011 and 2014 but the fiery Italian is now fully invested in his project at Inter Milan as he targets a Serie A title
SERIE A FIXTURES
Saturday, February 29
Lazio vs Bologna – 2pm KO
Udinese vs Fiorentina – 5pm KO
Napoli vs Torino – 7.45pm KO
Sunday, March 1
AC Milan vs Genoa – 11.30am KO
Leece vs Atalanta – 2pm KO
Sassuolo vs Brescia – 2pm KO
Parma vs SPAL – 2pm KO
Cagliari vs Roma – 5pm KO
Juventus vs Inter Milan – 7.45pm KO
Monday, March 2
Sampdoria vs Verona – 7.45pm KO
Conte achieved great success in Turin by leading the club to three consecutive league titles in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
Juventus have continued to dominate the league ever since his departure – they secured their eighth straight title last season – while Conte has managed the Italian national team and Chelsea.
Inter Milan are finally mounting a credible challenge to Juventus’ dominance but they go into this weekend’s action in third spot behind their hosts and Lazio.
Conte will know his side have to win on Sunday night if Inter are going to peg back their title rivals.
Inter can close the gap to just three points while second-placed Lazio will top the table if they can beat Bologna on Saturday.
Not having Juventus’ passionate fans cheering on the home side will give Conte and his men a boost but they could be facing a wounded beast with a point to prove.
Juventus surprisingly lost the first leg of their last-16 Champions League tie against Lyon on Wednesday with the Italians failing to record a single shot at goal. It was one of their worst performances of the season and Inter will be wary of a backlash.
Maurizio Sarri extraordinarily hit out at his players for moving the ball too slow in Lyon so you would expect a swift response if he still has the dressing room onside.
Sarri said of his players: ‘I cannot get the players to understand the importance of moving the ball quickly.
‘It’s difficult to explain why, but our first half [we] moved the ball too slowly, with no movement, so naturally the opposition were going to press, win the ball back and even score. I don’t know why, I cannot get the players to understand the importance of moving the ball quickly.
‘This is fundamental, we’ll keep working on it and sooner or later this concept will get into their heads.’
For Sarri’s sake he better hope that the penny drops for Sunday or the title race is about to take another major twist.
Lazio can snatch top spot
Twenty consecutive games unbeaten. Just two defeats all season. For all their doubters, Lazio are in title contention in Serie A with 13 games remaining.
They welcome Sinisa Mihajlovic’s Bologna to the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday and Simone Inzaghi’s side will be buoyed both their unblemished record at home this season and the current unbeaten run they find themselves on.
Simone Inzaghi has got Lazio firing on all cylinders and in with a shot of winning Serie A
The big fitness concern this week for the Biancocelesti has been the fitness of star striker Ciro Immobile.
He has been struck down with a fever according to reports in Rome but with every game carrying huge significance now, there is growing confidence he will be fit enough to feature.
And boy how they need him, too. Immobile is on course to win the Capocannoniere top scorer award in Serie A with 27 goals in 25 games already. Juventus forward Cristiano Ronaldo is his closest rival with 21.
Lazio are a point adrift of Juventus, with a vastly superior goal difference, and given Inzaghi’s side play on Saturday they can, provisionally at least, be top of the table this weekend.
Opportunities to punish Juventus can be fleeting over a domestic campaign and so Lazio can ill-afford to take anything other than maximum points against Bologna if they are serious in their title challenge.
Victory at Genoa last weekend saw the side make it 20 consecutive games unbeaten in Serie A
Milan’s charge into Europe
Before Zlatan Ibrahimovic arrived, AC Milan were a lost cause, enduring another below-par campaign.
But while the 38-year-old has netted just twice in Serie A since his return to the club – three in all competitions – his impact on team-mates and results has been undeniable.
Milan have gone from dwindling in the bottom half, even hovering precariously above the relegation zone before Marco Giampaolo was sacked, to being on the cusp of a top-six spot ahead of their meeting with Genoa.
Reports in Italy claimed they had looked to see their home game against Genoa postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak – the decision was made to make it one of the games played behind closed doors.
The club sit seventh heading into the game, only behind sixth-placed Napoli on goal difference, and six adrift of Roma in fifth. With Genoa toiling in the drop zone, Ibrahimovic and Co must show no mercy if they are to make any dent on the European spots.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has got AC Milan back on track and in contention for a European position
A lot of fans will be having to follow their teams through social media and TV with a number of games going ahead with no supporters allowed at the stadiums.
Udinese will look to end a run of three straight draws when they welcome Fiorentina to the Stadio Friuli.
La Viola were rampant on the road last time out when they thumped Sampdoria 5-1 and they will look to pull off a similar haul.
Sampdoria they will look to ease relegation fears on Monday night when they play this season’s surprise package, Hellas Verona.
Atalanta will hope they can carry their Champions League forward as they take on Lecce away
Free-scoring Atalanta are among the sides currently scheduled to play in front of fans.
Now, if they were at home in Bergamo, they would be among the list of behind-closed-doors games but given they face a trip to the south coast to face Lecce.
Atalanta were rampant in the Champions League putting four past Valencia in their last match and having not played since due to their home game against Sassuolo being postponed, there will be hope that they have not lost their golden touch against an improved Lecce side.
Fabio Liverani were given a reality check by Roma, who are away at Cagliari on Sunday, in a 4-0 loss but prior to that the promoted side beat Torino, Napoli and SPAL.
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