MILAN, Italy, Dec 19 – Inter Milan will have to rely on Romelu Lukaku for their goal threat on Saturday as the Serie A title challengers aim to move level with Juventus without striking revelation Lautaro Martinez.
The pair have struck 18 of Inter’s 32 league goals this season as Antonio Conte has led them into their first serious title in nearly a decade, but Belgian Lukaku could be partnered by teenage rookie Sebastiano Esposito, who is set for his first Serie A start following a series of promising appearances from the bench in recent weeks.
Two draws in a row have put the breaks on Inter, with Dusan Vlahovic’s last gasp equaliser for Fiorentina last weekend allowing Juve to stay level on points before moving three ahead on Wednesday.
A late booking in that draw for Argentine Martinez, who is reportedly a target for both Barcelona and Manchester City, looks to have given Esposito his big chance for an Inter side missing key players like midfielders Stefano Sensi and Nicolo Barella.
An incredible Ronaldo leap gave Maurio Sarri’s side a 2-1 win at Sampdoria earlier in the week as they prepare for this weekend’s Italian Super Cup clash with Lazio, who made it a three-way title race on Monday with two added-time goals to beat Cagliari by the same score.
Third-placed Lazio play their week 17 match against Hellas Verona in early February due to their trip to Riyadh to face Juve, leaving Inter with a chance to move six points away from the Rome club.
On Friday, Lazio’s local rivals Roma can also put some pressure on Simone Inzaghi’s side and steal a march in the race for the Champions League when they travel to struggling Fiorentina, whose draw with Inter was their first point in five matches.
The Tuscan outfit haven’t won in Serie A since the end of October while Paulo Fonseca’s Roma have lost just once in the league since late September and can move to within a point of Lazio with a win in Florence.
They welcome Chris Smalling back from a knee injury, who along with Lukaku was the subject of the now infamous “Black Friday” Corriere Dello Sport front page as Italian football continues to grapple with racism in the stands and boardrooms.
Serie A attracted widespread condemnation and ridicule after launching an anti-racism campaign that featured monkeys, with the league seemingly unable to beat back a tide of racist incidents.
The league’s managing director Luigi De Siervo said Serie A’s commitment to fighting discrimination was “not in question” despite him being recorded last month telling club bosses he had asked for stadium microphones to be turned off so racist chants can’t be heard.
Player to watch: Sebastiano Esposito
The 17-year-old Esposito has made five substitute appearances for Inter in Serie A and the Champions League and has impressed coach Conte in those short outings.
An Italy under-19 international, Esposito has moved ahead Matteo Politano in the pecking order in the absence of first choice Martinez.
“I still struggle to realise what’s going on. It all happened in such a short time,” said Esposito in an interview with the Gazzetta Dello Sport last month.
“Conte is awesome. An extraordinary coach. Lukaku is a humble guy but out of the ordinary. He welcomed me into the dressing room as if I were his little brother.”
71 – The height in centimetres Cristiano Ronaldo was calculated to have jumped when heading home his incredible headed winner at Sampdoria which put Juventus top on Wednesday.
48 days – Lazio will have to wait the best part of two months to catch up with their title rivals after their match against Verona was moved to February due to the Italian Super Cup.
4 – The number of points Fiorentina are away from the relegation zone amid their winless run and the absence of Franck Ribery to an ankle injury.
Fiorentina v Roma (2245)
Udinese v Cagliari (1700), Inter Milan v Genoa (2000), Torino v SPAL (2245)
Atalanta v AC Milan (1430), Lecce v Bologna, Parma v Brescia (both 1700), Sassuolo v Napoli (2245)