Can Inter shrug off Boxing Day shame to keep pace near the top? What to watch in Serie A
There's one more big weekend of soccer in Italy on ESPN2 and ESPN+ before the new year, but where should you begin your viewing journey?
Juventus host Sampdoria (12/29, 6.30 a.m., ESPN2) in a battle that should keep Max Allegri's side well and truly clear at the top. Games between these two tend to deliver on entertainment -- five of their past six meetings have yielded more than 2.5 goals per 90 -- and there's definitely the chance of a big upset. Sampdoria held on for a 3-2 home win over the Scudetto holders back in late-2017, but their streak of 12 straight games against Juve without a clean sheet doesn't bode well.
Beyond their early-morning clash, there's plenty of intrigue elsewhere in Italy before their three-week winter break. Napoli can't afford to let their focus slip at home, while Lazio, Roma and Inter all face must-win matches as the top half of the table -- in particular, the automatic Champions League places -- look fairly well set at the halfway stage.
Here's the best of what to watch on ESPN+ at the end of December.
Empoli vs. Inter: 12/29, 9 a.m. ET, ESPN+
OK, so this game is less about the hosts, currently three points above the relegation zone, than it is about Luciano Spalletti's surging squad. There's little chance of Inter contending for the Scudetto given Juve's 14-point lead but Mauro Icardi (nine goals in 15 games) & Co. are firmly in the hunt for a second consecutive automatic Champions League place after seven seasons in limbo.
Samir Handanovic has nine clean sheets in 18 league matches so far, which bodes well behind a settled back line, while Empoli's awful defense -- they're tied for worst in Serie A this season with 36 goals conceded, an average of two per game -- should be ripe for the likes of Ivan Perisic and Keita Balde Diao to exploit.
Empoli haven't beaten Inter in Serie A since 2006, when they won on an injury-time own goal from Marco "The guy Zinedine Zidane head-butted in the World Cup final" Materazzi, and we don't expect that run to be halted this weekend. While Inter will face a two-match stadium closure after the winter break, that won't impact them here. Expect the visitors to score often in a victory that keeps them well ahead of Lazio and Sampdoria in third place.
Lazio vs. Torino: 12/29, 9 a.m. ET, ESPN+
This is a battle of striker vs. striker in a sneaky, top-half-of-the-table clash between two inconsistent but entertaining sides. Lazio boast the robust, angular Ciro Immobile (10 goals this season, third-best in Serie A) who is capable of scoring every which way if given half a yard of space. Torino counter with Andrea Belotti, who's off to a slower start this season but is still mighty dangerous in and around the area.
Games between these two tend to deliver the fun: four of the past five head-to-head contests have involved both teams scoring, while Torino haven't kept a clean sheet against The Eagles in 10 straight meetings. Given that Lazio are in the chase for the Champions League and Il Toro are unbeaten away from home, this ought to be a spicy affair.
Parma vs. AS Roma: 12/29, 9 a.m. ET, ESPN+
The beauty of this game lies in the sheer randomness of it all. Which AS Roma side will turn up: the one that rattled off the "Romantada" against Barcelona in last season's Champions League, or the one that's failed to win back-to-back games in Serie A since the end of September?
Roma are a frustration this season, but some adjustment was to be expected after the sales of Alisson (to Liverpool) and Kevin Strootman (to Marseille) in the summer. However, it's nearly 2019 and Eusebio Di Francesco is still at square one when it comes to figuring out how to get the best out of this team. There's plenty of talent to call upon, led from the front by Edin Dzeko, but the overall vibe around the Giallorossi this season is "work in progress." That said, youngsters Cengiz Under, Patrik Schick and the transcendent Nicolo Zaniolo point to a brighter future.
The main issue comes at the back: summer signing Robin Olsen's managed just two clean sheets in Serie A all season and has gone 12 straight matches conceding at least once. They've been the first team to concede in six of their past eight matches, which puts added strain on a side still figuring out what it wants to be.
Meanwhile, Parma are just happy to be back in Serie A. Resurrected after bankruptcy in 2015, the team has managed a remarkable three consecutive promotions to get back to the Italian top flight. Led by Roberto Inglese and the resurgent former Roma forward Gervinho (five goals each in Serie A this season), they're not a team to be taken lightly.
All in all, Parma represent another challenge for Di Francesco & Co. as they try not to fall too much further behind the top six heading into the break.
Napoli vs. Bologna: 12/29, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN+
This should be a simple home win for Carlo Ancelotti's side but the Boxing Day debacle at the San Siro, in which Kalidou Koulibaly was sent off and racially abused while violence outside the ground resulted in death, will inevitably carry over into their final game before a three-week pause. Furthermore, the unexpected injury-time defeat at Inter, via a Lautaro Martinez goal, has them fully nine points behind Juventus at the top of the table.
All eyes will be on Arkadiusz Milik (eight Serie A goals this season), Dries Mertens and Jose Callejon (five league assists each) to dispatch their mid-table visitors. History is on Napoli's side: they've won five straight against Bologna, who haven't kept a clean sheet in their past 12 meetings with I Partenopei.