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Sassuolo target Serie A top spot after flying start

Surprise package Sassuolo host lowly Udinese on Friday looking to claim top spot in Serie A before their rivals return to domestic duties after a heavy week of European action.

Roberto De Zerbi’s side are second in Italy’s top-flight, two points behind leaders Milan after beating Napoli 2-0 last time out for their first ever win at the Stadio San Paolo.

It was an impressive result for Sassuolo, in particular given that they were playing without their talismanic striker Francesco Caputo, who remains a doubt with an muscle problem.

Sassuolo and 18th-placed Udinese open the seventh round of league action with their rivals playing at the weekend before the international break.

In addition to Caputo’s possible absence, Sassuolo are also dealing with a Covid-19 outbreak with players Filip Djuricic, Lukas Haraslin and Federico Ricci and two staff members testing positive.

But their performances have given their rivals reason to worry.

“A few years ago no-one thought Leicester City could win the Premier League,” said Roma coach Paulo Fonseca who host Sassuolo on December 6.

“I have a lot of admiration for the job Roberto De Zerbi is doing. He’s a coach with a lot of courage and his side are playing some really good football.”

De Zerbi led Sassuolo to eighth last season, with Caputo scoring 21 goals, for their second-best ever finish after sixth in the 2015-2016 season.

Caputo has scored five in five games with his unbeaten team the top scorers in Serie A with 18 goals so far this term.

“I hope this (win over Napoli) is yet more proof that convinces the players of the quality they have,” said former Napoli midfielder De Zerbi, 41. 

Juve travel to Lazio

Milan host Hellas Verona on Sunday, looking to extend their own unbeaten start to the season.

Coach Stefano Pioli’s young side have been reborn since Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s return in January as they target a first title since 2011, when the 39-year-old Swede was also on the team.

“We are only at the beginning,” warned Pioli. 

“We’re a young side but are already mature on the pitch.”

Third-placed Juventus travel to Lazio with Cristiano Ronaldo back after recovering from coronavirus.

Juventus eased to a 4-1 Champions League win over Hungarian minnows Ferencvaros midweek, and now look to reduce the four-point gap separating them from Milan at Lazio, who are six points off top spot in 10th.

The Roman club are in the eye of a storm after the Italian Football Federation launched a probe over possible breaches in coronavirus regulations with star striker Ciro Immobile missing their 1-1 Champions League draw at Zenit Saint Petersburg.

Atalanta, in fourth, host sixth-placed Inter Milan, with both teams still reeling from their Champions League defeats.

The Bergamo side fell 5-0 at home to Liverpool with Antonio Conte’s Inter losing 3-2 at Real Madrid.

One to watch: Chris Smalling

Chris Smalling played his first league game last weekend for Roma after suffering a knee sprain following his permanent move from Manchester United.

“When you have three young defenders, it’s important to have someone like Chris who brings a different calmness, a different type of experience and leadership,” said Fonseca.

The 30-year-old scored three goals in 37 appearances in all competitions on loan last season. 

Roma, one point off the Champions League berths, travel to Genoa.

Key Stats

10 – Goals conceded by Inter Milan

7 – Ibrahimovic’s goals in four matches

1 – Juventus’ away wins this season

0 – AC Milan, Sassuolo and Juve’s defeats

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