WE'VE sealed another stellar signing for the season with Serie A don Paolo Bandini bringing his expertise to the site thanks to our partner Unibet.
Paolo is an Anglo-Italian sportswriter who pens a superb weekly Serie A column for the Guardian and his other credits include ESPN, the BBC and TalkSport as well as making regular appearances on the Football Weekly podcast.
He's a Trevi Fountain of knowledge and we're delighted to have him on board. Here he previews four crunch Saturday fixtures.
Bologna v Roma (Sat 11.30am)
Roma are starting to feel a little more comfortable. Six wins in seven league games have carried the Giallorossi to third and allowed them to establish a five-point buffer between themselves and Lazio in fifth. With nine games to go, they are in a strong position to secure Champions League football for another year.
The job is not done yet, however, and with a visit to Barcelona coming up on Wednesday the risk is that they might take their eye off the ball. “We are thinking about that match,” confessed midfielder Kevin Strootman. “But to get there in the ideal mental condition we we need to win the one against Bologna first.”
Notwithstanding that thought, manager Eusebio Di Francesco is expected to make some changes to his first-choice starting XI. Edin Dzeko may be afforded a rest after starting both of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s two friendlies during the international break. Diego Perotti is expected to make way for Stephan El Shaarawy on the left of attack.
We are less likely to see any tinkering with a defence that has kept three consecutive clean sheets. Roma can struggle to put away chances when Dzeko is absent, but they ought to be able to keep things tight at the back against a modest Bologna attack.
- Bologna 0, Roma 1 (13-2, Unibet)
- Under to score first (43-10, Unibet)
- Under 2.5 goals (51-50, Unibet)
Genoa v SPAL (Sat 2pm)
The presumption was that Genoa had pulled clear of the relegation zone after they beat both Lazio and Inter during a fantastic February run. Since then, though, they have endured three defeats in a row.
Their advantage over 17th-placed SPAL stands at a modest five points, making this a game that they can ill-afford to lose against opponents who are unbeaten in four – and who most recently drew with Juventus.
Patience has been a virtue for the visitors, who stuck by manager Leonardo Semplici (the man who previously guided them to consecutive promotions) even when the outlook for this season looked bleak. He has squeezed the maximum from the likes of journeyman forward Mirco Antenucci, whilst integrating key January signings well.
One of the most prominent players from that latter group, Jasmin Kurtic, is set to serve a one-game suspension on Saturday. His physicality in front of the defence will be missed. Yet Genoa are a team more adept at playing down the flanks and might not be best positioned to exploit the gap that he leaves.
Traditionally, the Grifone enjoy a significant homefield advantage at Marassi, yet this season they have won just three times on their own turf. On the basis of recent performances, I do not feel confident that they will make it four this weekend.
- Genoa 1, SPAL 1 (27-5, Unibet)
- Antenucci to score first (15-2, Unibet)
- SPAL double chance (22-25, Unibet)
Sassuolo v Napoli (Sat 5pm)
Following Juventus’s slip against SPAL, the ball is back in Napoli’s court. Although two points behind in the standings, they control their own destiny thanks to the forthcoming head-to-head in Turin.
And with an earlier kick-off time this weekend, they have a chance to put the pressure on the Bianconeri by beating Sassuolo and vaulting – temporarily, at least – back into first place.
They may have to do it without their captain. Marek Hamsik has been training apart from his team-mates after suffering a muscle strain on international duty, and is not expected to start – though there may be scope for a cameo off the bench. Piotr Zielinski is the obvious candidate to replace him in midfield.
Napoli ought to prevail regardless. Despite an encouraging win over Udinese just before the international break, Sassuolo have mostly been dismal in 2018, the appointment of Beppe Iachini as manager providing only the briefest of lifts toward the end of last year. They have not won a home game since December, and their last four fixtures at the Mapei have included 3-0 maulings by both Atalanta and Lazio.
And yet Napoli themselves were a little flat in their most recent game, requiring a late Raul Albiol header to seal a 1-0 win over Genoa. The greatest uncertainty here regards their ability to hold nerve as the title race goes down to the wire. On quality alone, this ought to be a stroll, yet there are countless stories in football of teams that faltered as the finish line came into view.
- Sassuolo 0, Napoli 3 (15-2, Unibet)
- Insigne to score first (5-1, Unibet)
- Napoli half-time full-time (9-10, Unibet)
Juventus v Milan (Sat 7.45pm)
The stakes could hardly be higher at the Allianz Stadium. Juventus will almost certainly require a positive result if they are to finish this weekend in first place.
Milan, meanwhile, need all the points they can get in their improbable push for a Champions League berth. They begin the weekend five behind fourth-placed Inter, but with the derby coming up on Wednesday evening.
Milan are not yet back on Juventus’s level. A comprehensive two-legged defeat to Arsenal in the Europa League illustrated how far they still have to go. Yet they remain undefeated domestically in 2018, a run that includes victories over both Lazio and Roma. They can hardly be taken lightly.
Adding an emotional layer to this fixture is the return of Leonardo Bonucci to Turin – the place where he developed into one of the world’s finest defenders and became a part of the brilliant BBC. His former manager and team-mates have insisted that they feel no rancour towards him for leaving in the summer, but does the same hold true for Juventus’s supporters?
What toll, meanwhile, has been taken by the international round? Gonzalo Higuaín was targeted for criticism after Argentina were thrashed 6-1 by Spain, but will harsh words demoralise him or provoke a reaction? If nothing else, Juventus may be grateful to the Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli for dropping Paulo Dybala. Fresh legs are invaluable at the tail end of a campaign.
- Juve 2, Milan 0 (23-4, Unibet)
- Dybala to score first (17-5, Unibet)
- Bonucci to be carded (2-1, Unibet)
Anglo-Italian Paolo Bandini writes about Italian football for the Guardian and his tips appear here thanks to our football partner at MrFixitsTips, Unibet. They're making a big splash in the UK betting scene and if you join them today you can claim up to £30 in Welcome Bonuses when you deposit and place your first bet.