ROME, February 26 – Inter Milan boss Jose Mourinho will need to employ his greatest powers of tactical and motivational astuteness if his club are to maintain their four-point lead at the top of Serie A this weekend.
Inter embark on a tricky trip to Udinese facing the possibility of needing to play two midfielders or youth team players at the back.
The champions have centre-backs Ivan Cordoba and Walter Samuel suspended after being dismissed in last week’s game with Sampdoria while Cristian Chivu, Marco Materazzi and Davide Santon are all injured, although Materazzi is a possibility.
That leaves Mourinho with possibly only two defenders at his disposal in Brazilians Maicon, a right-back, and centre-back Lucio, thus facing the prospect of having to field two midfielders in his back-line.
Javier Zanetti played much of his career at full-back and can easily slot in there but then Thiago Motta, another Brazilian, will probably have to fill in at centre-half.
The situation is worsened by the fact that Esteban Cambiasso and Sulley Muntari are both suspended — again for events related to the Sampdoria match — leaving Mourinho short in midfield as well.
He still has stalwarts Dejan Stankovic and Wesley Sneijder but would probably have liked to rest one or both of those after the work they got through against Chelsea in the 2-1 Champions League win on Wednesday.
It means that bit-part players like new Kenyan signing McDonald Mariga, Slovenian Rene Khrin and Portuguese winger Ricardo Quaresma could all be called upon.
Such turnover after a tough mid-week match spells trouble for Inter, who also saw their once nine-point Serie A lead cut to four on Wednesday thanks to Milan’s last gasp 2-1 win at Fiorentina.
"Has the league re-opened? We will see. It will certainly be a difficult run for us," Inter president Massimo Moratti told his club’s televsion channel.
"The players now know that it will be tough, compared to what it was a few weeks ago. We have enough experience to know that our character will help us along."
Milan’s win in Tuscany, while dramatic in its conclusion, has served only to heighten tensions surrounding Italian football this week with cries of foul being heard from Florence to Milan.
Fiorentina were denied what appeared to be a good shout for a penalty four minutes from time with the score 1-1 but referee Roberto Rossetti may argue that Riccardo Montolivo’s theatrical fall after Thiago Silva had momentarily held his arm was unconvincing.
Milan went up the other end and Alexandre Pato scored the winner two minutes into injury time, leaving Fiorentina enraged.
The hosts boycotted their after-match press commitments — echoing Inter’s move after their 0-0 draw with Sampdoria last Sunday — and later called for Rossetti to be barred from refereeing their matches.
"It’s necessary to take a stand on this point," said Fiorentina owner Andrea Della Valle.
"Our dignity and that of the team and the city has been touched. Our domination (over Milan) was absolute and we deserved to win."
Back on the pitch, AC Milan host relegation-threatened Atalanta knowing that a victory may be enough to close the gap on Inter to just one point.
Elsewhere, Juventus host Palermo in a clash that has Champions League qualification significance, with the two sides separated by one point.
Third-placed Roma travel to Napoli as they bid to stay in title contention following their surprise Europa League elimination at the hands of Panathinaikos on Thursday, while their hosts could go back up to fourth if they win and Juve fail to beat Palermo.
Catania v Bari (1700GMT), Lazio v Fiorentina (1945GMT)
Sunday (1400GMT unless otherwise stated)
AC Milan v Atalanta, Chievo v Cagliari, Genoa v Bologna, Juventus v Palermo (1945GMT), Livorno v Siena, Napoli v Roma, Parma v Sampdoria, Udinese v Inter Milan