Days after the Azzurri’s failure to qualify for the World Cup, followers of Italian football can console themselves with a big weekend in Serie A.
Six of the top seven teams in the Italian league play one another, highlighted by Roma vs Lazio in the Rome derby on Saturday, and leader Napoli’s match against AC Milan.
On Sunday, six-time defending champion Juventus visits surprising Sampdoria and Inter Milan hosts Atalanta, which was last season’s revelation.
Here’s a look at the big matches:
The first derby since longtime Roma captain Francesco Totti retired is the most anticipated meeting between the capital’s two clubs in years. Both Lazio and Roma have had strong starts to the season and sit fourth and fifth, respectively, in the standings with only one point separating them.
It will be a matchup between last season’s Serie A scoring leader, Roma’s Edin Dzeko (29 goals in 37 matches), and this season’s scoring leader, Lazio’s Ciro Immobile (14 in 11).
Roma boasts the league’s best defense, having conceded just seven goals in 11 games, while Lazio is one of only three squads to have scored 30 goals or more.
Both clubs also feature young coaches who are making a growing impact _ Simone Inzaghi at Lazio and Eusebio Di Francesco at Roma. Inzaghi and Di Francesco used to face each other in the “Derby della Capitale” when they were players for Lazio and Roma, respectively.
As always in the derby, security will be high, especially after Lazio fans littered the Stadio Olimpico with images of Anne Frank the young diarist who died in the Holocaust wearing a jersey of city rival Roma last month.
The displays of anti-Semitism are being investigated by the football federation and could result in a stadium ban for Lazio. Meanwhile, Roma may want to keep something in reserve for Wednesday’s visit to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League.
After losses to Lazio, Roma, Inter and Juventus, big-spending AC Milan is in desperate need of a big win to provide job security for embattled manager Vincenzo Montella.
Milan, which was bought by a Chinese-led consortium in April, spent more than 200 million euros (nearly $250 million) on new players in the offseason but is struggling to stay in the Europa League places.
Napoli, meanwhile, is on course for its first Serie A title since Diego Maradona led the club to the 1987 and 1990 championships.
But the southern club showed signs of weariness before the international break, following consecutive losses to Manchester City in the Champions League with a scoreless draw at Chievo Verona.
Napoli winger Lorenzo Insigne should be motivated after being relegated to a bench role in Italy’s playoff loss to Sweden _ which was seen as one of the main tactical reasons for the 1-0 aggregate defeat Monday.
Napoli will also need a win over Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday to keep alive its chances of reaching the Champions League knockout stages.
No club is more associated with Italy’s squad than Juventus so it will be interesting to see if Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli, and Giorgio Chiellini have recovered from Azzurri’s first failed qualification in six decades.
Both Buffon and Barzagli announced their national team retirements after the playoff, while Chiellini said he was debating retirement. Full attention will be needed for a Sampdoria squad that has lost only twice.
Sampdoria features a combination of veterans like Fabio Quagliarella who leads the squad with seven goals and talented young players like 21-year-old midfielder Lucas Torreira who leads the league in takeaways. Sampdoria has been able to improve despite an offseason overhaul that included high-profile sales of players like Patrik Schick, Milan Skriniar and Luis Muriel for a combined 70 million euros.
Juventus then hosts Barcelona in the Champions League on Wednesday looking to improve on the 3-0 loss to the Spanish club in September.
Atalanta finished a club-record fourth last season and qualified for Europe for the first time in more than a quarter-century. But the Bergamo squad’s worst performance of the season came in a 7-1 rout by Inter Milan in March.
So Atalanta would love nothing more than to hand regional rival Inter its first loss of the season.