Serie A braces for key Milan derby with title dreams on the line

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The Italian Serie A braces for one of the biggest Milan derbies in recent memory as reigning champion and current league leader Inter hosts fellow title hopeful Milan on Saturday.

Inter is four points ahead of Milan heading into the clash, which could be a turning point in Simone Inzaghi’s quest to retain the Nerazzurri’s title in his first, so far hugely impressive, year as coach.

His team is unbeaten in the league since mid-October, a 15-match run that contains just four draws, including one against Milan in the first derby of the season back in November.

It is the start of a big fortnight for Inter, with the visit of Roma in the Italian Cup Tuesday followed by a trip to second-placed Napoli next weekend before Liverpool comes to Milan for the first leg of an intriguing Champions League last-16 tie.

For Milan, Saturday’s match represents a key moment in its bid for a first Scudetto in over a decade. A defeat would leave it seven points back having played a game more, with Inter’s abandoned match with Bologna from January to be rescheduled for later this month.

Stefano Pioli’s side sits third, level on 49 points with Napoli who can take advantage of whatever result the Milan giants rustle up at Venezia on Sunday.

After its miserable stalemate with Juventus before the international break, Pioli said his team needs to win at the weekend if it wants to “be close to Inter right to the end.”

Pioli is almost certain to be without starting center-back Fikayo Tomori and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, with the latter still feeling the effects of an Achilles tendon injury.

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Crowds return

The match will be one of the first to be played in front of a maximum half-full stadium after a couple of rounds with just 5,000 fans.

Stadium capacities have been a sticking point between Italy’s football authorities and the government all season, but last month health undersecretary Andrea Costa suggested that by the spring, Italian stadiums would be free to fill up.

Other disagreements within Serie A led President Paolo Dal Pino to resign Tuesday.

Dal Pino stepped down ostensibly because he and his family are moving to California, but in his parting note he said he had been frustrated by an environment “resistant to change.”

Serie A, which will vote for a new president Monday, has been openly hostile to the Italian FA’s insistence on changes to the league’s internal rules, such as letting votes pass with simple majorities.

On Monday, Italian football lost one of its most colorful characters when Maurizio Zamparini, who sacked dozens of managers over more than three decades as a club owner, passed away at the age of 80.

Before its Serie C derby with Messina on Wednesday, Palermo held a minute’s silence in honor of Zamparini, who as president oversaw the Sicilians’ first promotion to Serie A in 31 years and brought in a host of stars who took them into the previously unimaginable heights of European football.

Vlahovic debut

Signed to boost a Juventus attack that has so far scored just 34 times in 23 fixtures, Dusan Vlahovic will make his debut Sunday night against Verona, who also have one of Italy’s top-performing forwards in Giovanni Simeone.

The 22-year-old Vlahovic is locked on 17 league goals with Ciro Immobile at the top of the scoring charts and alongside fellow new arrival Denis Zakaria has been brought in to boost Juve’s bid for Champions League football.

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