Derby della Madonnina, Juve vs. Lazio headline massive weekend in Serie A
Five of the top six in Serie A clash this weekend in a series of matches, including the Milan derby, that promise to shake up the race for the Scudetto as well as the scramble for a place in next season's Champions League...
Inter vs. AC Milan
AC Milan have won 10 of 13 games in all competitions this season, but Vincenzo Montella will not have slept easy over the international fortnight. Back-to-back defeats to Sampdoria and Roma in Serie A, with a scare against Rijeka in Europe between, have led to speculation about Montella's future despite Carlo Ancelotti ruling out a quick return to management after his dismissal from Bayern. Lose the derby on Sunday night and Milan will find themselves 10 points behind rivals Inter and further adrift of the Champions League spots depending on what Roma and Lazio do on Saturday.
The team pointedly celebrated with Montella after the Rijeka win and the fans did not boo or whistle during the loss to Roma. They recognise what Montella did last season, winning Milan their first trophy in three and a half years, and leaving the impression he overachieved by finishing sixth.
Given the volume of change in the summer, with the new spine of the team arriving late, and other players requiring time to adapt to Serie A, it was always going to take time for things to come together this season. Injuries and playing on three fronts haven't helped, nor has Bonucci, who nobody expected to play so beneath himself. Inter, for now, look like they got the better deal for a centre-back in Milan Skriniar.
In addition to making their best start since 2002, and being level with Juventus in the table, the Nerazzurri currently have the league's best defence and you all know what they say about defence and championships. But Inter haven't always been convincing. They've rode their luck at times, notably in Rome, Bologna and Crotone, and even Benevento made them sweat a fortnight ago. But Inter's ability to stay in games, strike late and change their outcome is indicative of two things: the team's stamina and belief.
Imagine what might happen if they start playing well is a common refrain, as it was in 2015 when they started well under Roberto Mancini before imploding the night before Christmas. Concern of it happening again, and Skriniar turning from Cinderella to pumpkin like Jeison Murillo did, is not high, in part because Inter no longer have hotheads like Felipe Melo on the team to make life more difficult for them.
The difference between the Milanesi at the moment is simple: Inter have won the big games so far. Milan have lost them and with all the uncertainty surrounding their defence at the moment, surely the last striker they want to face is Mauro Icardi.
Juventus vs. Lazio
As the news became public this week that Netflix are currently filming a four-part documentary series behind the scenes at Juventus, you wonder what the cameras will have picked up on during the preparations for Saturday's game against Lazio. A sense of trepidation, perhaps. Because it was Lazio who appeared to confirm fears that Juventus are not the same at the back without Leonardo Bonucci when they beat them 3-2 in the Italian Super Cup in August.
For Simone Inzaghi to triumph even in the absence of players like Lucas Biglia and Keita Balde Diao who had either left or were in the process of leaving, not to mention the injured Felipe Anderson only served to harden the sense that the 41-year-old is one of Italy's brightest up and coming managers. Anderson is still yet to feature this season, while Keita's replacement Nani, has only made the briefest of cameos. It hasn't mattered.
No one wants to face this Lazio side. They trounced Milan 4-1 and were a goal to the good against Napoli only to lose one centre-back, then another, ending up with 10-men as Inzaghi, already forced to use all his subs because of injury, needed to take off an injured Dusan Basta. How Inzaghi has built on last season has impressed everyone, including Juventus who, despite tying Max Allegri down until 2021, are keeping tabs on "Super Pippo's" brother.
Juve sporting director Fabio Paratici goes way back with Inzaghi and another compliment for Lazio is how much he rates Stefan de Vrij and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, who is the closest Serie A has to a player in the Paul Pogba mould. But Lazio are more than just those two players. Luis Alberto has been the revelation of the season so far in Italy and Ciro Immobile always has a point to prove against the team that rejected him even when he finished Capocannoniere in 2013-14 with Torino. Only Messi has scored more goals in all competitions than Immobile this season.
It's a tricky game for Juventus, come as it does, after they dropped points for the first time this season against Atalanta. But winning away to Juventus, as Inzaghi knows too well, is hard. He was still a player when Lazio last did it in 2002 and Juventus haven't lost at the rebranded Allianz Stadium in 41 games.
Gonzalo Higuain will be smarting after being snubbed once again by Argentina. Lazio's team cost just €8 million more than Juventus paid for "Pipita" but the Eagles are not lauding that over the Old Lady, even after winning the Super Cup. Higuain has scored 13 times against them over the years and they fear him every bit as much as Paulo Dybala.
Roma vs. Napoli
Juventus claim they're enjoying being the hunter rather than the hunted at the moment and one imagines the Old Lady will be watching with bated breath as Napoli enter the wolf's lair on Saturday night.
Roma edged the Azzurri to the runners up spot last season and despite a change of manager and the exits of Wojciech Szczesny, Antonio Rudiger and Mohamed Salah, the winning mentality Luciano Spalletti set about instilling remains ingrained. Aleksandar Kolarov looks like a bargain, Lorenzo Pellegrini is making Kevin Strootman fight for his place, and we're still to see other summer signings like Rick Karsdorp and Patrik Schick.
Underestimated by the media, Roma have gotten better every week and seem to be clicking under Eusebio Di Francesco, whose only defeat was a very unlucky one against Inter. Getting Alessandro Florenzi back has been huge on an emotional and tactical level. Radja Nainggolan is adapting to what Di Francesco wants, and as for Edin Dzeko, well, he keeps scoring and deserves his place on the Ballon d'Or shortlist as, of course, does Napoli's Dries Mertens.
Unbeaten in 19 league games, which includes a current 12-game winning streak, Napoli go to the capital with no fear. They ended Roma's perfect home record in March and showed against Lazio last month that if you even have a bad five minutes against them, they can blow you away.
Renowned for the beauty of their football, Napoli haven't always played well this term. Unlike in the past, though, it hasn't stopped them from winning and the manner in which they came back from behind to win against Atalanta, SPAL and Lazio bolstered belief that this could be their year. How they handle the pressure of being alone at the top remains to be seen, though. Napoli have got altitude sickness before in Bologna in Dec. 2015, suffering another bout in Feb. 2016 when, as winter champions, they lost to Juventus and relinquished top spot, waving goodbye to the Scudetto.
Neither side can afford to be distracted by their trips to England in midweek, where Roma play Chelsea and Napoli take on Manchester City.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.