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Serie A Weekend Preview: Can Napoli End Winless Run?

Serie A returns this weekend after six clubs were involved in midweek matches in the Champions League and Europa League.

Italy’s top clubs excelled in Europe. Inter Milan, Juventus and Atalanta all earned victories in the continent’s premier club competition, while Lazio and Roma both triumphed on Thursday night.

And Napoli earned a creditable 1-1 draw at Liverpool in their penultimate Group E game, giving them a fighting chance of qualifying for the knockout stages and providing evidence that Carlo Ancelotti’s men are still a force to be reckoned with, despite ongoing chaos behind the scenes.

The Neapolitans host Bologna on Sunday looking to end a run of seven games without a win and a favourable fixture against 15th-placed opposition represents a fine opportunity to get back on track, on the pitch at least.

The club’s players, supporters, manager and owner Aurelio De Laurentiis remain embroiled in a civil war which dates back to the 1-1 draw with Red Bull Salzburg on November 5.

A win would have booked Napoli’s place in the knockout stages and kept them top of the group, but the result saw them overtaken by Liverpool for top spot after they beat Genk at Anfield.

De Laurentiis organised the downbeat squad to go on a training retreat to Castel Volturno but Ancelotti’s players refused to go, opting to take their cars and drive home from the San Paolo Stadium.

According to Gazzetta dello Sport, Lorenzo Insigne is the latest player to be fined. He has reportedly been deducted 300,000 euros – 50 per cent of his gross monthly income – and De Laurentis is seeking a total of 2.5million euros in reparations.

Bologna are themselves winless in four matches and have won just once on the road this term. Sinisa Mihajlovic’s side drew 2-2 at home to Parma last time out thanks to Blerim Dzemaili’s 95th-minute equaliser.

Napoli showed similar stubbornness at Anfield on Wednesday evening. Dries Mertens used all of his experience to get the better of Virgil van Dijk and open the scoring on 21 minutes.

Ancelotti could do with his star man bringing his barren run of seven league matches to an end if the crisis club are to pick up a first domestic win since October 19.

In contrast, one striker in red hot form is Ciro Immobile. The marksman became the first player in Lazio’s history to score in eight consecutive league matches when he netted in the 2-1 win over Sassuolo last week.

The 29-year-old has provided 11 goals and four assists during that run, and he didn’t let up during the international break either, plundering two goals during Italy’s 9-1 thrashing of Armenia on November 18.

Remarkably, Immobile has scored 15 goals in 13 Serie A appearances this season. It took the former Juventus man 36 matches to score as many last term.

And he will be licking his lips at the prospect of facing Udinese on Sunday. The visitors are still trying to recover after sacking Igor Tudor earlier this month and have triumphed in just one of their last five matches.

Caretaker boss Luca Gotti is hoping to tighten up a defence which has conceded 16 goals in the last five matches. Seven of those came in the 7-1 defeat at Atalanta, a hammering which proved the final nail in the coffin for Tudor.

Chris Smalling is enjoying a renaissance in his career after making a season-long loan move to Roma from Manchester United.

His performances have been lauded by pundits and Giallorossi fans alike, and it is likely he will continue to show United fans what they are missing when Roma visit Verona on Sunday.

In scoring one goal and providing two assists in the win over relegation-battling Brescia last week, Smalling became the first Englishman since David Beckham in 2008-09 to score two goals in the same Serie A season.

Moreover, statistics show the 30-year-old is outperforming his Red Devils replacement Harry Maguire.

Per 90 minutes this season, the Greenwich-born defender has made more headed clearances, won more tackles, more aerial duels, earned more clean sheets and produced more interceptions than United’s £80m man.

Smalling’s partnership with the agile Gianluca Mancini has been conducive to a strong defensive record of 14 goals conceded, and he is proving the ideal mentor for the 23-year-old.

Cristiano Ronaldo finally made his Juventus return in the 1-0 Champions League group stage victory over Atletico Madrid.

Rumours had been circulating that the five-time Ballon d’Or winner had a disagreement with manager Maurizio Sarri after the ex-Chelsea boss substituted him in two consecutive matches against Lokomotiv Moscow and AC Milan.

‘My relationship with Cristiano Ronaldo is good,’ Sarri said before Tuesday’s encounter with Atletico.

‘If a player who has won so much is angry about being substituted it means he still has a lot of motivation, and this is something positive.’

The 34-year-old walked straight down the tunnel after being replaced against Milan and reportedly left the stadium before the game had finished.

Ronaldo was left out of Sarri’s squad for the 3-1 win over Atalanta but is set to make his Serie A comeback when Juve host Sassuolo on Sunday.

The Portugal international scored three goals in two duels with Neroverdi last season, so expect him to build on an excellent record of 17 goals in 21 appearances for club and country this term.

SERIE A FIXTURES
SATURDAY

Brescia vs Atalanta
Genoa vs Torino
Fiornetina vs Lecce

SUNDAY
Juventus vs Sassuolo
Lazio vs Udinese
Inter Milan vs SPAL
Parma vs AC Milan
Napoli vs Bologna
Verona vs Roma

MONDAY
Cagliari vs Sampdoria