Napoli host Roma and Fiorentina are away to Juventus in a super-charged Serie A weekend in which all four title contenders will have one eye on leaders Inter Milan.
Although designed to provide some pre-festive thrills, the penultimate round of games before the league stops for the winter break has been made even more enticing by the current state of affairs in Italy’s top flight.
Inter travel to Udinese on Saturday with a one-point lead on Fiorentina, with Napoli two points behind and Roma in fourth at five points off the pace. Champions Juventus are only one-point behind Roma in sixth.
Inter could go four points clear of Fiorentina with a win on Saturday but their trip to the Friuli comes with a twist, 38-year-old striker Antonio Di Natale hinting Wednesday it could be his last home game for the club that has been his home since 2004.
“The fans are always behind us and always fill the stadium. I want to show my thanks in our last home game of the year by giving them a special gift on Saturday,” said Di Natale.
Having seen Udinese lose to both Napoli and Fiorentina in recent weeks, either side of two wins against Sampdoria and Chievo, Di Natale expects no-frills Inter to be tough to beat on Saturday.
He added: “Their game is not exceptional, but they’re winning consistently and conceding few goals. We’ve been working hard in the past days for this game.”
Inter have scored the fewest goals (18) from the top six teams, but Roberto Mancini’s men have conceded only nine times in 15 games and their reverse at Napoli a fortnight ago was their lone defeat in nine successive outings.
The visitors should welcome back Felipe Melo, who spent a night in observation last week after a head clash with teammate Gary Medel in their 1-0 win against Genoa.
“I’m fine, thank God. I don’t remember much about the game but luckily I’m okay,” said Brazil midfielder Melo, who does not expect an easy run-in to the festive break.
“It’s important we finish this first half of the season strongly, but we know it’s going to be tough at Udinese and against Lazio after that.”
Napoli host Roma on Sunday in the ‘Derby del Sole’, with the hosts firm favourites at the San Paolo three days after hammering Legia Warsaw 5-2 in the Europa League to record six wins out of six in the group stage.
Last week’s 3-2 reverse at Bologna left scars, and Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri said: “There are a lot of title contenders this season, but that doesn’t mean we have to settle for seventh place.”
Roma, unconvincing in a 1-1 Champions League draw at home to BATE Borisov on Wednesday that secured passage to the last 16, travel south on the back of a league defeat to Atalanta and last week’s 1-1 draw at Torino — and likely to be without injury-hit Ivorian Gervinho.
“We’re going through a tough spell in the league,” admitted Roma coach Rudi Garcia. “We have to recover quickly ahead of Napoli given that we put a lot in tonight.”
A Roma defeat at the San Paolo could allow Juventus to continue their climb back up the table with a sixth consecutive win of the season, but the visit of Fiorentina looks anything but simple for Massimiliano Allegri’s men.
Juventus have already lost away to Roma and Napoli and, four days after a 1-0 Champions League defeat away to Sevilla, would lose more face with a home defeat to Paulo Sousa’s high-flyers from Florence.
Meanwhile, AC Milan should have no excuse when they host basement side Verona.
Verona are still winless and the San Siro giants could welcome back Mario Balotelli from an injury lay-off following the on-loan Liverpool striker’s recent groin operation.
Fixtures (times GMT)
Genoa v Bologna (1300), Palermo v Frosinone, Sassuolo v Torino (both 1600), Udinese v Inter Milan (1845)
Chievo v Atalanta, Empoli v Carpi, AC Milan v Verona (all 1300), Napoli v Roma (1600), Juventus v Fiorentina (1845)
Lazio v Sampdoria (1845)
– Agence France-Presse