Milan will defend their two-point Serie A lead on Sunday night when they face Juventus, a huge match which threatens to be overshadowed by a gambling scandal rocking Italian football.
Battered by reports that former midfield star Sandro Tonali gambled on Milan matches while still playing for the team he supported as a boy, the seven-time European champions will try to hold off local rivals and closest challengers Inter Milan who take on Torino on Saturday.
Juventus are four points behind Milan in third but have again been engulfed in controversy as Nicolo Fagioli became the first player to be punished for illicit gambling, just weeks after Paul Pogba was suspended for doping violations.
The 22-year-old was suspended for seven months on Tuesday after admitting to betting on football matches as a criminal investigation into illegal gambling platforms and organised crime bleeds into football.
Tonali, now at Newcastle United, is certain to be slapped with a lengthy worldwide ban, while disgraced paparazzo Fabrizio Corona, who has spent time in jailed for extorsion, has been threatened with legal action after also accusing Roma attacker Stephen El Shaarawy and Lazio defender Nicolo Casale of betting on matches.
“He has never gambled and has no interest in doing so,” said El Shaarawy’s legal team, adding that the accusations were “totally unfounded and slanderous”.
The affair hangs over this weekend’s action with Corona and mainstream outlets publishing a raft of rumours and apparent leaks from the public prosecutors office in Turin which is leading the criminal probe.
On Thursday the head of the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) Gabriele Gravina said “we will never abandon these young men”, who have admitted gambling addictions.
“I have the duty… to defend the dignity of young Italians who have become cannon fodder,” said Gravina, who has also brushed off calls to step down by Italy’s ruling right-wing government coalition.
Milan coach Stefano Pioli has a clutch of starting players unavailable either through injury or suspension and will have to pick his third-choice goalkeeper Antonio Mirante for a big test of Milan’s title credentials.
France ‘keeper Mike Maignan is suspended for his red card at the end of the frantic 1-0 win at Genoa before the international break, and on Thursday Marco Sportiello succumbed to a calf injury which will likely keep him out of action for at least a month.
Also suspended is left-back Theo Hernandez while injured Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Rade Krunic will continue their absences in midfield.
However Pioli will be to count on Olivier Giroud, who will return to his usual position of centre-forward after excelling between the sticks at Genoa following Maignan’s sending off.
Ailing Napoli kick off the weekend’s action at Verona in the midst of an early-season crisis which has wiped the sheen from last season’s historic title triumph.
Seven points behind Milan in fifth and soundly beaten by Fiorentina last time out, Napoli are without star striker Victor Osimhen who picked up a hamstring injury on international duty and midfielder Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa.
Player to watch: Giovanni Simeone
With Osimhen out for around a month Simeone will likely be tasked with leading the line for Napoli.
The Argentine striker has always been a willing contributor from the bench and was extremely effective when Osimhen was out of action at around the same time last season, scoring four times in seven matches while his star teammate recovered from a hamstring problem.
With Milan coming to town next weekend under-fire coach Rudi Garcia will be hoping Simeone can recreate some of that goalscoring magic.
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