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 crucial Saturday games.
Napoli v Sampdoria (Sat 2pm)
As happy as Napoli supporters are to see their team back on top of Serie A, they might have been even more enthused by the sight of Lorenzo Insigne back in the team and back scoring in the midweek Coppa Italia win over Udinese.
The forward had been laid low by injury and fatigue, and has not started a game since December 1. It is no coincidence that this has been Napoli’s worst month of the season, with defeats to Juventus and Feyenoord followed up by a goalless draw at home to Fiorentina.
Insigne’s creativity and verve have been sorely missed, and not only when he was absent. His performances had dipped noticeably towards the end of his run of 60 consecutive games played.
Napoli will hope that his return might also be accompanied by an upturn in form for Marek Hamsik. The Slovakian’s goal against Torino last weekend pulled him level with Diego Maradona as Napoli’s all-time leading scorer in Serie A. He had previously insisted that the prospect was not weighing on him, and yet he had gone nine league games without a goal.
Sampdoria are trending in the opposite direction, early-season optimism fading amid a run of four defeats in six games across all competitions. Second-top scorer Duvan Zapata looks likely to miss out, too, despite pushing hard in training to shake off an injury in time to face his former team.
- Napoli 3, Sampdoria 1 (9-1, Unibet)
- Insigne to score first (24-5, Unibet)
- Under 4.5 cards (19-25, Unibet)
Sassuolo v Inter (Sat 2pm)
Are Inter starting to wobble? Since going top with a 5-0 demolition of Chievo, the Nerazzurri have drawn with Juventus and Pordenone (the latter in the Coppa Italia) before losing at home last weekend to Udinese.
Nobody had expected them to contend for a title at the start of the season, so it would be easy to suggest that they are simply starting to find their true level. I am not convinced, though, that it would be accurate.
Inter have enjoyed some good fortune in the early part of this campaign, finding goals at key moments to turn draws into wins. Last week’s loss to Udinese, whom they outplayed, did feel a little like a case of fate redressing the balance.
Yet it also served as evidence that there is no reason to panic. Luciano Spalletti still has this team in hand, and with better finishing they might have won comfortably. He will have known already that his team was vulnerable at full-back: a reality which Udinese exploited.
It will be interesting to see whether Yuto Nagatomo or Dalbert steps in for Davide Santon on the left of defence. Sassuolo have enjoyed an upturn in their own fortunes since hiring Beppe Iachini as manager, and their win away to Sampdoria was impressive. But with Domenico Berardi in indifferent form, I’m not convinced they have the tools to exploit Inter’s weaknesses out wide.
- Sassuolo 0, Inter 1 (13-2, Unibet)
- Brozovic to score first (12-1, Unibet)
- Inter win (71-100, Unibet)
Milan v Atalanta (Sat 5pm)
Milan thought they had taken the best parts of Atalanta when they signed Andrea Conti and Franck Kessié in the summer. The idea was to bring a little bit of the magic that propelled the Bergamese club to fourth place last season over to San Siro.
But the former player blew out his knee in September and the latter has not yet taken command of games for Milan as he did for Atalanta. Perhaps a reunion with old friends will serve to refresh him. Or might things go the other way?
Few managers are better at tailoring a gameplan to an opponent than Gian Piero Gasperini, and it is not hard to imagine him working to expose any flaws that he remembers in Kessié’s game from their time working together.
Playing to Milan’s advantage is the fact that Atalanta played in the Coppa Italia on Wednesday, reducing their time to prepare. The Rossoneri, by contrast, have been working intensively at a training retreat arranged in the wake of their 3-0 humiliation by Verona.
As always, the balance between ensuring focus and sustaining morale is a delicate one. Milan’s players were not even permitted to see their families until the middle of the week, and a Christmas dinner was cancelled. A repeat of last weekend’s inattentive showing seems unlikely, but is this really the recipe for restoring a demoralised group to their best?
- Milan 2, Atalanta 2 (12-1, Unibet)
- Ilicic to score first (8-1, Unibet)
- Both teams to score (18-25, Unibet)
Juventus v Roma (Sat 7.45pm)
The reigning champs are once again starting to look unstoppable. They might sit second in the table but Juve have now gone seven games without conceding a goal across all competitions.
On Wednesday they beat Genoa 2-0 in the Coppa Italia. The victory was expected, but the truly positive news was that Paulo Dybala had started and scored the opener.
After taking over the No.10 shirt in the summer, Dybala had begun this season in electric form but tailed off badly over the past three months. This was his first goal in seven appearances, and only his third since September 23.
Dybala had begun recent matches on the bench, and manager Massimiliano Allegri will have a dilemma on his hands regarding whether or not to start him on Saturday. The player lined up as a false nine against Genoa, but Juventus have lined up in a 4-3-3 in other recent games, a formation in which Dybala would most likely be shunted out wide to accommodate Gonzalo Higuaín.
Roma’s own Scudetto credentials might have been underestimated to this point. Assign three points for their game in hand, and they would be level already with Juve. They were beaten by Torino in the cup in midweek, but that was a heavily rotated team.
They had kept three consecutive clean sheets in their preceding three games, but Edin Dzeko, like Dybala, has been on a dry run – with just one strike in his last 13 outings.
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.