Palermo – Juventus
Massimiliano Allegri is beginning to sound like a stuck record. “The title race is not closed,” he protested once again this week, after seeing his team move 11 points clear at the top of the table. Whilst the desire to keep his team from letting their guard down is understandable, fans will hope he at least recognises that Wednesday’s Champions League fixture against Dortmund represents the club’s most crucial appointment of the next seven days.
If he does, then we can expect the likes of Carlos Tevez and Alvaro Morata rested on Saturday in Sicily. Paul Pogba is already set to miss out due to suspension. It is enough to make the champions look vulnerable against opponents who boast the fourth-best home record in the league, and especially when Juve have already drawn their last three on the road.
Draw – 3.40
Cagliari – Empoli
Zdenek Zeman is back as Cagliari manager, less than three months after losing the job to Gianfranco Zola in the first place. The Sardinians are in desperate need of a fillip after collecting just a single point from their last five games, a run which has seen them slip to 18th in the table – four points adrift of safety.
But if Zeman knows that he must start picking up points quickly, his team is hardly in ideal condition to do so – with Andrea Cossu and Danilo Avelar both suspended and Albin Ekdal out injured. As befits his reputation, the manager reportedly devoted his entire first training session back to attacking maneouvres, and he is expected to restore Marco Sau to the front line on Saturday. If his team does go down, they intend to do so with all guns blazing.
Over 2.5 goals – 1.89
Atalanta – Udinese
After drawing his first game in charge, against Parma, last weekend, the new Atalanta manager Edy Reja was oddly specific in stating that his team needed another 13 points from their remaining 12 games in order to avoid relegation. He is still working out how exactly to get there. Reja lined his team up in a 4-3-3 at the Tardini, but has since experimented in training with a three-man defence.
One way or another, he must persuade his players to show a bit more attacking intent, after they mustered just two shots on goal against Parma. Udinese have themselves found the net only 10 times in 12 away games, so we could not be surprised to see another low-scoring fixture here.
Under 1.5 goals – 2.90
Genoa – Chievo
How it must frustrate Milan’s supporters to witness M’Baye Niang’s recent form at Genoa. While the Rossoneri continue to slump, the Rossoblu have had their own European ambitions reinvigorated by the on-loan forward – who has chipped in three goals and an assist in his last three games.
Chievo had hoped Federico Mattiello might play a similarly prominent role in their own run-in, after borrowing the 19-year-old full-back from Juventus until the end of the season, but he has now been ruled out for seven months after suffering a horrific leg break against Roma. His absence may require the Flying Donkeys to pull winger Ezequiel Schelotto back into defence – where he will line up directly opposite Niang.
Niang to score – 3.60
Sassuolo – Parma
Parma showed impressive spirit to collect a point last week against Atalanta, despite their off-field issues. A group of fans then made a show of solidarity by purchasing at auction the benches that bailiffs had removed from a home changing room at the Tardini, and donating them back to the club.
A collective spirit alone is not enough to win games, however, and Parma’s troubles extend to a lack of quality on the pitch that has only been exacerbated by Cristian Rodríguez’s apparent departure to join Gremio after getting sent off against Atalanta. But standing in the visitors’ favour is the fact that Sassuolo have lost four games on the trot, without scoring in any of the last three.
Correct score: 0-0 – 9.50
Verona – Napoli
The only Italian club to win in the Europa League this week, Napoli had Gonzalo Higuaín to thank for digging them out of a hole against Dinamo Moscow – his hat-trick wiping out an early one-goal deficit. It was a fixture to remind us of both the Italian team’s qualities going forward, but also the frequency of their lapses at the back.
Verona, with seven goals in their last four games, have shown they are savvy enough to take advantage of opponents’ miscues. Luca Toni, in particular, has been ruthless lately, finding the net five times in as many appearances.
Toni to score – 3.25
Inter – Cesena
If Napoli lack balance, then they still have nothing on Inter. At times on Thursday night, the Nerazzurri were scintillating, exposing the flaws in a highly-touted Wolfsburg team and taking an early lead at the Volkswagen Arena. Even after the Germans had equalised, Rodrigo Palacio had a golden opportunity to restore his team’s lead but shot wide from close range.
At the back, though, Inter were their usual chaotic selves, and by the end they could feel fortunate only to have conceded three times. Supporters will be grateful to see Samir Handanovic return as goalkeeper after a woeful display by his deputy, Juan Pablo Carrizo, but more than anything they should be encouraged that their team is lining up against opponents who have scored only nine away goals all year. Even then, a clean sheet still seems improbable.
Both teams to score – 2.33