Focus on Milan neighbours

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ROME, January 5- All eyes will be on the Milan neighbours as Serie A kicks-off again on Thursday after a two-and-a-half week winter break.AC Milan lead the table by three points and will be showing off new signing Antonio Cassano as they travel to Sardinia to tackle Cagliari.

Inter Milan, taking on Napoli, will also display a new acquisition as former Milan coach Leonardo takes over on the nerazzurri bench for the first time since Rafael Benitez was fired after last month’s Club World Cup triumph.

Inter come into the game against the in-form biancocelesti fully 13 points behind Milan and 10 behind their second-placed visitors — although they do have a pair of games in hand.

That form, added to an unprecedented outburst against his bosses for failing to support him in the transfer market, saw Benitez’s short reign as Jose Mourinho’s successor come to an abrupt end before Christmas.

He had complained that Mario Balotelli was sold without being replaced, leaving his squad light.

But if Leonardo thought he would be given a blank cheque in January, he’ll be disappointed as Inter’s sporting director Marco Branca said centre-back Andrea Ranocchia will be the only transfer window signing before the summer.

Ranocchia was brought in six months ahead of schedule from Genoa because Walter Samuel has suffered a knee injury ruling him out for the season.

It means Leonardo will have to work some magic with more or less the same resources that Benitez had.

And things won’t be starting well as he’ll have top scorer Samuel Eto’o suspended for Napoli’s visit while goalkeeper Julio Cesar, playmaker Wesley Sneijder and young forward Coutinho are all injured.

What’s more, Napoli will be at full strength and well rested after struggling to cope with the twin commitments of league and Europa League before Christmas.

There are many in Italy who believe the southerners have been the best team so far this campaign, hampered only by a thin squad unaccustomed to playing twice a week for months on end.

As for Milan they will be boosted by the arrival of Cassano, although he is unlikely to start in Sardinia.

Cagliari has not often been a happy hunting ground for Milan but the Sardinians have proved vulnerable this season, losing 1-0 at home to Inter, Napoli and Genoa, although they did thump Roma 5-1.

And while Milan will feel boosted by Cassano’s signing, they have also lost Ronaldinho and it is hard to see them being significantly improved, if at all.

The strike force was never their problem with Zlatan Ibrahimovic in fine form all season and Robinho increasingly starting to settle in Italy.

Indeed they hit top spot with Ronaldinho on the bench and both Pato and Filippo Inzaghi out injured.

It is at the back where they have been less than convincing, losing at home to both Juventus and Roma and being well beaten away to Cesena earlier in the season.

If Milan do slip up, either Napoli or Lazio, who face a tough trip to Genoa, could join them at the top.

The other two teams holding onto hopes of landing the title this season are Juventus, who host Parma, and Roma, who entertain Catania.

Juve are fourth, five points off top while Roma are a place and a couple of points further back.

Fixtures (1400 GMT unless stated):

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Juventus v Parma (11:30), Bologna v Fiorentina, Brescia v Cesena, Cagliari v AC Milan, Genoa v Lazio, Lecce v Bari, Palermo v Sampdoria, Roma v Catania, Udinese v Chievo, Inter Milan v Napoli (19:45)

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