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Having ended Napoli’s unbeaten start to the league season last week, champions Juventus will try to do the same to Inter Milan when they host the Serie A leaders in a mouth-watering “Derby d’Italia” on Saturday.
Inter were left as the only unbeaten team in the league after Juve won 1-0 last Friday away to a Napoli side which had not lost in the opening 14 games. The result last weekend also allowed Inter to go top with 39 points thanks to a 5-0 win over Chievo.
Juventus, third with 37 points, will top the standings if they win on Saturday although Napoli (38 points) would overhaul them if they can beat an improving Fiorentina at home on Sunday.
Whatever the outcome, it is already clear that Juventus, chasing a seventh successive title, have far more of a fight on their hands than in previous seasons where they often left the rest of the field trailing in their wake.
It is also evident that reports of Juve’s demise have been premature.
The cracks which appeared during a 2-1 loss to Lazio – Juve’s first home defeat in more than two years — and a 3-2 defeat at Sampdoria have quickly been filled by their pragmatic coach Massimiliano Allegri.
They have been especially resolute in defence and their 2-0 win away to Olympiakos on Tuesday, which took them into the Champions League last sixteen, was their fourth successive clean sheet since the Sampdoria defeat.
Morocco defender Mehdi Benatia has stepped into the defensive void left by the departure of Leonardo Bonucci, new signings forward Douglas Costa and midfielder Blaise Matuidi have fitted in quickly and Gonzalo Higuain is as deadly as ever in attack.
Juventus have one point more than they did at the same stage last season when they were top of the table with a four-point lead over Roma and AC Milan.
The only worry is Argentine playmaker Paulo Dybala’s lacklustre form. “It’s not going so well for Dybala at the moment but it happened at this stage last season too,” said Allegri.
“Paulo needs to relax and keep doing the simple things, training hard and finding the right fitness levels.”
Inter, meanwhile, have blossomed under Luciano Spalletti and are unrecognisable from last season when they employed three coaches on the way to finishing seventh.
Defender Andrea Ranocchia said it was the most united group he has seen in his six seasons with the club.
“Spalletti is great because he treats everyone the same way. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your salary is, we are all treated the same.
“I’ve been at Inter for many years and it’s the first time I’ve seen the dressing room like this,” added the 29-year-old.
Ranocchia said that spirit would be needed to deal with setbacks across a long season.
“When things don’t go our way, we must retain this same unity.”