After their midweek UEFA Champions League celebrations, Juventus resume the weekly grind of Serie A with a potentially tricky away trip to US Citta di Palermo that signals coach Antonio Conte’s return to the touchline.
Conte, who led Juve to the title last season, was banned at the start of the season by the Italian soccer authorities for his role in a match-fixing affair while at his former club AC Siena.
Despite assistant Angelo Alessio keeping the Old Lady of Turin ticking over — Juve are top of the league and they qualified for the round-of-16 of the Champions League on Wednesday — he has welcomed Conte back to the frontline.
“We’re happy with our qualification and the way we qualified,” Alessio said.
“We’re also happy to welcome back Antonio Conte for Palermo,” he added.
After a 1-0 win over Shakhtar Donetsk allowed Juve to finish top of Group E, defender Leonardo Bonucci said of Conte: “He’s suffered a lot and we want to dedicate this to him.”
As a comeback match, it appears Conte — who has always proclaimed his innocence — could not have it any easier: Palermo sit fourth from bottom of the table with few notable victories to speak of.
Yet the Sicilians, unlucky to suffer a 1-0 defeat against Inter at the San Siro last weekend, are undefeated at the Stadio Renzo Barbera since a 3-0 rout by SSC Napoli in their Serie A opener back in August and they held AC Milan to a 2-2 draw in October.
Juve’s extra incentive is for what would be their 12th win in 16 games is the fact Inter and Napoli could both drop points in their late match in Milan tomorrow.
Both teams have emerged as Juve’s strongest title opposition, with Napoli in second only two points behind the Bianconeri and Inter a further two points adrift.
“Are Inter Juve’s main rivals? Why not? Maybe that’s what we can become — I hope so,” Inter president Massimo Moratti said recently.
Napoli have already shown their limits playing away against their big name rivals during a humbling 2-0 defeat in Turin in late October.
However the Partenopei should have reason to believe they can return from Milan with at least a point.
Cagliari dug deep to grab a share of the points three weeks ago and Palermo came close last weekend until a late own-goal by defender Santiago Garcia handed Inter all three points.
There is also some inner turbulence at Inter as the club digs it heels in over Wesley Sneijder.
Sneijder has been unofficially sidelined after refusing to sign an amendment to his contract which the players’ trade union FIFPro labeled as “blackmail.”
The standoff has threatened to boil over, with Sneijder breaking club rules on Wednesday by responding to supporters’ questions about his availability for the match on Twitter.
Inter coach Andrea Stramaccioni left the Dutchman out of his squad for the trip to PFC Neftci in the UEFA Europa League on Thursday, but maintained that his decision was not linked to the contract impasse.
He said Sneijder is “doing very well, training with his teammates like everyone else,” but the odds are against Sneijder playing tomorrow.
“I repeat that all of the choices from here on out, regarding every Inter player, are just my assessments,” Stramaccioni added.
AC Milan, meanwhile, will be without Kevin-Prince Boateng (suspended) for their trip to Torino.
Like Juventus, Milan have qualified for the round-of-16 of the UEFA Champions League and are on a positive run that has seen them surge from the bottom half of the table to seventh, albeit 14 points behind Juventus.