Milan: Juventus host struggling Catania in one of eight Serie A fixtures on Wednesday, when the champions will be among the sides looking to close the gap on record-setting Roma.
The Bianconeri have endured a tough two weeks, seeing their Champions League group hopes nosedive with defeat away to Real Madrid, four days after suffering a first reverse of the season in a 4-2 away defeat to Fiorentina.
Despite a dominant 2-0 win over Genoa on Sunday, the spotlight has been directed away from the Turin giants and southwards towards league leaders Roma, whose fairytale start under Frenchman Rudi Garcia continued on Sunday, when they set a new Serie A record of nine consecutive wins at the start of a season. Their 1-0 victory at Udinese was all the more impressive as defender Maicon had been sent off earlier in the second half, and Udinese had not been beaten at home for over a year.
In the absence of injured captain Francesco Totti, likely to be sidelined for another two weeks, Garcia will be relying on Moroccan Mehdi Benarti to marshal his forward line away to the Flying Donkeys.
Chievo sit bottom of the table but, having seen league newcomers Sassuolo pull off a 1-1 draw at title contenders Napoli on September 25, Garcia was quick to warn his side against complacency in Thursday’s only fixture.
“Although we’ve already won our most difficult match of the season so far [against Napoli], everyone thinks we’ve already won the game against Chievo,” Garcia told the Roma Channel. “All the games in Italy are tough, and this one will be even tougher. Look at what happened with Napoli v Sassuolo for example.”
While not dismissing Roma’s impressive start, Juventus striker Carlos Tevez said the scudetto battle has just begun.
“There’s a long way to go,” said the Argentine, who is Juve’s top scorer with five goals in nine games.
Napoli, who sit second, are also five points adrift but, unlike Juventus, Rafael Benitez’s side face a tough task away to Fiorentina.
La Viola sit fifth, a further four points adrift, are unbeaten at home this season and full of confidence following that come-from-behind 4-2 win over Juve just over a week ago.
Any slip-ups at this juncture could prove costly for Napoli, who after facing Catania at home this weekend are away to Juventus.
“We have a crucial run of fixtures coming up so we have to focus on every match,” said Slovakian forward Marek Hamsik, who was Napoli’s top scorer until being caught by Argentinian teammate Gonzalo Higuain following his penalty double in a 2-0 win over Torino.
Reports in Italy suggest it could be a make or break week for Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri following their 3-2 defeat away to Parma.
Milan striker Mario Balotelli lasted less than an hour on his return from injury and suspension on Sunday, when the Rossoneri’s fourth defeat in nine games reportedly infuriated Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi.
Milan should welcome back Mattia Di Sciglio but have lost another defender to injury in Matias Silvestre.
Lazio, who recorded their first win in a month at home to Cagliari on Sunday, will fancy at least a share of the points.
Meanwhile, Garcia, who has so far talked down Roma’s hopes of winning a title they last secured in 2001, appears to be changing tack.
“I would prefer that people remember us for what we do at the end of the season, perhaps with a title,” said the 49-year-old Frenchman who guided unfashionable Lille to the 2011 Ligue 1 title. “That is something that remains.
“Nine victories are exceptional, but we have to keep our streak going. Starting with Thursday.”
Italian Serie A (all 11.45pm)
AC Milan v Lazio
Cagliari v Bologna
Fiorentina v Napoli
Genoa v Parma
Hellas Verona v Sampdoria
Juventus v Catania
Livorno v Torino
Sassuolo v Udinese