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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Inter, Milan, Napoli and Roma well placed to offer muscular resistance to serial Serie A winners Juventus

A happy coincidence of fixtures this weekend should offer clues about how muscular. Six of the top seven clubs play one another.

AC Milan's Leonardo Bonucci, left, made the 30-man list for the 2017 Ballon d'Or. But his side lost last time out in Serie A to Stephan El Shaarawy's Roma. Matteo Bazzi / AP Photo
AC Milan's Leonardo Bonucci, left, made the 30-man list for the 2017 Ballon d'Or. But his side lost last time out in Serie A to Stephan El Shaarawy's Roma. Matteo Bazzi / AP Photo

On the 30-man shortlist for the 2017 Ballon D’Or, Italy’s Serie A has five candidates. Next to Real Madrid, from whose ranks seven reigning European club champions are candidates, that might seem a scant representation.

But things are looking up. The Italian top flight weighs in above the Bundesliga – three on the shortlist - and France’s Ligue 1, with its four contenders.

There’s a chance the Juventus captain, Gigi Buffon, may even make the podium, although this is not likely to be the year when the Ronaldo-Messi duopoly is broken at football’s annual red carpet for individual achievements.

Time was that Italy’s top division dominated this award – 13 Serie A winners in the last 18 years of the 20th century – and was the place the best players sought employment as a priority.

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Any announcement that Serie A is well on the up should probably wait until after next week’s intriguing round of Uefa Champions League matches, when Roma meet the Premier League champions Chelsea and Napoli, top of the table in Italy and the team who have contributed most to making this season’s Italian top flight the home of the most regular supply of goals among Europe’s top leagues, have come back from their game at Manchester City.

But, at this early stage of the season, Italy intrigues. There is the goal glut and there is the promise of a tight title race, or at least some muscular resistance to Juventus’s bid to claim a seventh successive scudetto.

A happy coincidence of fixtures this weekend should offer clues about how muscular. Six of the top seven clubs play one another.

The seventh placed of those are the club who made the strongest suggestions in the summer about a renaissance for Italian football, spending the most in assembling a squad to challenge Juve.

AC Milan’s €250 million (just over Dh1 billion) outlay on reinforcements has bought them onto the Ballon D’Or list, with the bold seizing of Leo Bonucci, a swoop that not only gave notice to Juventus that their famously iron defence might be dismantled by market forces as well as by quick-footed strikers, but that, now backed by Chinese investors, Milan were ready to shop in the most fashionable boutiques after a long period scrabbling around the cut-price retail bazaars of the game.

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With Bonucci pinched from the champions, midfielders Lucas Biglia and Franck Kessie hired from two of last season’s over-achievers, Atlalanta and Lazio respectively, and striker Nikola Kalinic signed from Fiorentina, Milan’s local raids have given the club an impressive spine.

There was more. Andre Silva, the young Portugal striker, joined from Porto for just under €40m and the acquisition of Ricardo Rodriguez, the attacking left-back, and Hakan Calhanoglu, the pass-master and free-kick wizard gives them a pair of admired specialists.

Certainly the Milan line-up for Sunday’s showdown against Inter, third in the table, will look very different from the XI who took on their neighbours at the end of last season, a 2-2 draw in which Milan came back from 2-0 down thanks to goals from a pair of centre-halves.

On paper, the new Milan ought be more potent in attack, although no goals in their last two Serie A matches, both 2-0 defeats have spread some anxieties. Sunday is an important examination for Vicenzo Montella, the manager. Lose and the distance between the Milan clubs in the league would extend to 10 points and, conceivably, Milan could slip into the bottom half of Serie A.

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“This a club in reconstruction,” argued Andriy Shevchenko, the former striker, who won the Ballon D’Or while at Milan, “and they are still finding their way back up.” Shevchenko has heard word that Montella’s position is under scrutiny. He told Gazzetta dello Sport: “He needs to be given time.”

Inter, on their sixth different manager in 16 months – Luciano Spalletti – could, by Sunday evening be eyeing a significant prize for victory in the derby. They are on the shoulder of Juventus, joined with the champions on 19 points, two behind Napoli, who take their 100 per cent record to Roma. With fourth-placed Lazio at Juve, Inter sense an opportunity to leapfrog into first spot.

Lazio are buoyant, with nine goals in their past two matches. Ciro Immobile, their centre-forward, needs to add one more to his nine for the season so far to catch Juve’s Paulo Dybala at the top of the marksmen’s chart.

Last season’s leading goalscorer, meanwhile, Roma’s Edin Dzeko, with seven this term, confronts Napoli’s Dries Mertens, whose seven so far keep him ahead of anybody in terms of goals this calendar year. In 2017, nobody has struck more in Serie A than the diminutive Belgian.

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