Inter Milan take on fierce rival Juventus on top of their dramatic move to the Champions League quarter-finals on an excellent Serie A Sunday in which the Rome derby will also have a say in the race for the top four.
Simone Inzaghi’s side crown the weekend’s fixtures with the ‘Derby d’Italia’, a fierce matchup between Italy’s two traditionally biggest clubs that is as hotly contested and far more venomous than Inter’s battle for the rights to local bragging rights with AC Milan.
He could be key in a close fight for next year’s edition of Europe’s top club competition in which five clubs battle for three places, league leaders Napoli in the distance and seemingly cruising to the title.
Inter sit 18 points behind second-place Napoli and are separated by just three points from fifth-placed Roma, who are two points and two places behind Lazio ahead of an intriguing clash in the capital that opens Sunday’s main event. .
The defeat in Spezia on Friday seemed to hurt Inter’s top-four hopes, but all their rivals dropped points, including Atalanta, which is six points off Champions League places and hosts Empoli on Friday.
Inter have been inconsistent this season but have shown themselves in the bigger games, such as Wednesday’s goalless draw at Porto that secured them a place in the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time since 2011.
The 1-0 aggregate win over the Portuguese temporarily silenced critics who, following the Spezia defeat, had suggested Inzaghi’s time at Inter would be up.
“I’ve been in football for a long time and I know where the criticism comes from and who I should listen to,” Inzaghi said.
“On Sunday we have an important game but right now I want to enjoy the moment, we deserve it.”
Juventus enter the San Siro clash in an unusually low position of seventh and 10 points behind Milan, who sit fourth and travel to Udinese on Saturday.
However, they would be ahead of Inter in second place were it not for the 15-point penalty inflicted in January by the Italian Football Federation for illicit transfer activity.
Juve hopes to overturn the ruling, but will have to wait weeks to find out his fate.
Meanwhile, they have slowly climbed the table with five wins from their last six league games.
Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri has repeatedly mentioned the number of points his team have won “on the pitch”, a phrase often used by fans when discussing the number of league titles they have won.
Officially, Juve have 36, but supporters believe the two they took after the infamous ‘Calciopoli’ match-fixing scandal should be counted.
Allegri is once again without Paul Pogba due to injury, the France midfielder having played just 35 minutes since returning from Manchester United last summer.
Player to watch: Paulo Dybala
The clearest demonstration of the importance that Paulo Dybala has acquired for Roma occurred last weekend, when the Argentine striker entered the break with his team less and two goals from Sassuolo.
He came from a goal back with a fabulous first-class goal and came very close to leveling the score with a delicate long-range chip that went just below.
Roma ended up losing 4-3, but everything good about his game passed through him, and if he is to win his derby and boost his top-four hopes, he will need his star player in top form.
3 – the number of points separating the second and fifth.
10 – The distance in points between Juve and the top four.
Calendars (GMT hours)
Sassuolo – Spezia (1730), Atalanta – Empoli (1945)
Monza – Cremonese (1400), Salernitana – Bologna (1700), Udinese – AC Milan (1945)
Sampdoria-Verona (1130), Fiorentina-Lecce, Torino-Napoli (both 1400), Lazio-Rome (1700), Inter Milan-Juventus (1945)