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Inter in driver’s seat in four-way title tussle as scandals bubble away

Inter have stolen a march in the Serie A title race as the champions reach the halfway point of the campaign in pole position with arch-rivals Juventus out in the cold.

Under Antonio Conte Inter broke almost a decade of Juve dominance when they claimed their 19th league championship last season and have defied expectations following a turbulent summer to hold onto top spot at Christmas.

With key figures in that triumph, Romelu Lukaku, Achraf Hakimi and Conte all gone, and Christian Eriksen now officially no longer a Serie A player, few expected Inter to retain their crown under new boss Simone Inzaghi while the return of Massimiliano Allegri at Juve was seen as a sign of intent to take the crown back to Turin.

However Cristiano Ronaldo then fled to England and in the absence of the superstar’s goals the obvious flaws in the Old Lady’s squad were exposed, to the point that they now sit in fifth and 12 points off pacesetters Inter, with the best they can realistically hope for a spot in the Champions League.

Meanwhile what looked like a tight group of pretenders gunning for their own chance at glory, has begun to fall away just as Inter got motoring.

Two weeks ago four points was all that separated then-leaders AC Milan, Inter, Napoli and Atalanta in the top four, but straight home defeats to Empoli and Spezia have left Napoli seven off the pace, one less than dark horses Atalanta.

Seven straight wins for the Nerazzuri to an aggregate score of 20-2 has them sitting pretty, with Milan coach Stefano Pioli admitting on Wednesday his city rivals were favourites for the title.

COVID-19, scandals lurk

Away from the field there have been the usual crop of scandals, with one of football’s worst-kept secrets — suspect capital gains from transfers used to balance the books — exploding when finance police raided Juventus’ offices.

That investigation carried out by prosecutors in Turin is the most serious as it has key Juve directors under official investigation for falsifying accounts at a publicly trade company.

But similar practices at Inter are being looked at by prosecutors while the Italian FA is also reviewing dozens of transfers involving clubs throughout the league.

Meanwhile a reminder that the Covid-19 pandemic has not gone away came on Monday when health authorities in Salerno barred local team Salernitana from travelling cross-country to play Udinese on Tuesday evening following at least two confirmed cases in the playing squad.

The match went ahead as scheduled only to be abandoned at half-time, bringing back memories of the rows which surrounded Napoli’s shelved trip to Juventus late last year and Lazio’s match with Torino in the Spring.

In both cases the home team were at the stadium, ready to play while knowing the opposition would not be arriving, and each time the team originally considered to have forfeited the match were eventually cleared of any wrong-doing.

That will almost certainly happen in this case as well as long as Salernitana remain in the division beyond December, something which is far from guaranteed as Italian FA chief Gabriele Gravina confirmed on Tuesday that they must be sold by the end of the year or they will be kicked out.

Salernitana, promoted to Serie A last season, need to be sold as they are owned by Lazio owner Claudio Lotito, but the independent directors who were charged with the club’s sale insist they have not yet received any good bids.

With a request for an extension until the end of the season — backed almost unanimously by Serie A clubs — rejected by the FA Italy’s top flight could well restart in January with just 19 clubs.

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