Inter Milan look for Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez to supply firepower against Atalanta: Serie A weekend preview
Conte calls the duo 'rough diamonds' ahead of clash with free-scoring opposition, while fellow league leaders Juve take on Roma
Antonio Conte will be counting on Inter Milan strike duo Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez in Saturday's Serie A clash against free-scoring Atalanta to keep ahead of champions Juventus.
Both eight-time holders Juventus – who take on Roma in the capital – and Inter Milan are top of the Italian league table on 45 points after 18 games, with Conte's side ahead on goal difference.
"I've always said Romelu was a rough diamond that needed polishing. Lautaro Martinez is the same," said Conte. "These lads are 26- and 22-years-old, they are still young.
"I wanted Romelu very strongly when I was at Chelsea, even back at Juventus. I wanted him, now I can get to work on polishing the diamond."
Inter and fifth-placed Atalanta have had the most potent attacks so far this season in Serie A, setting the scene for a potential goal-fest in the San Siro.
Gian Piero Gasperini's Atalanta are 11 points off the leaders but coming off back-to-back league wins with ten goals scored – a 5-0 scoreline against both AC Milan and Parma.
Gasperini coached Inter for five winless games before being sacked in 2011. But he has transformed the Bergamo side who finished third last season.
They have scored 48 goals so far this season and another on Saturday would see them become the most prolific team in Serie A in the past 60 years.
They will be keen to impress at the San Siro where they host Valencia in their Champions League last 16 first leg tie on February 19.
Inter failed to qualify for the European knockout rounds and are targeting their first Serie A title since 2010.
Conte believes that Lukaku and Martinez, who both scored in last weekend's 3-1 win over Napoli, are only beginning to hit their stride.
The pair have accounted for 23 of Inter's 39 Serie A goals, and 30 in all competitions.
Lukaku is the second highest scorer in Serie A, behind Lazio's Ciro Immobile.
His double against Napoli took his tally for the season to 14, overtaking the 12 he scored in his final season with Manchester United.
"It will be big expectations ahead of the game. Both teams have great strikers," said Atalanta wing-back Robin Gosens.
"Lukaku is very difficult to mark, Martinez moves a lot. They are doing extraordinary stuff, it will make it a tough challenge.
"But we played at San Siro in the Champions League so we are used to that pitch."
Gasperini's side are one point behind Roma, who occupy the final Champions League place, and host Juventus on Sunday.
The champions beat Cagliari 4-0 last time out with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring a hat-trick.
Roma manager Paulo Fonseca insisted his side could bounce back from the 2-0 defeat at home against Torino last weekend.
"The squad are a bit sad after the game against Torino, but we're focused on the match against Juventus and we have to be optimistic," said the Portuguese coach.
City rivals Lazio are now positioned among the title challengers, three points behind the leaders in third, before hosting struggling Napoli.
Simone Inzaghi's side can push their winning streak in the league against eight-placed Napoli who are 11 points off the Champions League place.
"Our position in the league doesn't reflect the team's value," said Napoli midfielder Allan.
Meanwhile, a 38-year-old Italian man has been handed a five-year stadium ban after being found guilty of directing racial abuse at Italian striker Mario Balotelli in November.
Balotelli, playing for Brescia, threatened to walk off the pitch after hearing monkey chants from the stands during the second half of his side's 2-1 defeat, leading to Verona being handed a suspended one-match partial stadium closure.
The man accused of initiating the racist chants, which led to a visibly angry Balotelli kicking the ball into the crowd, was identified by Verona police after they reviewed CCTV footage and eyewitness accounts.
The Europe-wide ban will bar him from attending sporting events in the European Union until 2025 and also visiting areas where fans frequently gather on match days.
Balotelli again faced racial insults this month, from Lazio fans, in a 2-1 home defeat and the Serie A club was fined €20,000 (Dh81,500). Police are in the process of identifying those responsible for the abuse.
Updated: January 10, 2020 02:21 PM