ROME, Nov 7 (Reuters) - Inter Milan begin their bid for a third successive Italian Cup when they travel to Messina for the first leg of their last-16 tie on Thursday.
The 2005 and 2006 winners were one of eight teams granted a bye into the last 16 by virtue of finishing in the top eight in last season's Serie A.
Squeezed into already-congested fixture lists, the Cup comes low on the list of priorities for Italy's biggest clubs.
In the past two seasons, however, Inter have seized on it as a way of making up for disappointing league campaigns spent stumbling along in the wake of Juventus and AC Milan.
This time round, with Inter top of Serie A and qualification for the Champions League knockout phase not yet certain, coach Roberto Mancini could be forgiven for feeling he has more important issues.
Messina eliminated 2004 Cup winners Lazio in the previous round, but still should be little match for even a weakened Inter led by Argentine striker Julio Cruz, who scored three times in recent Champions League games against Spartak Moscow.
The Cup will also be a distraction for Inter's arch-rivals Milan, who are struggling in the league and nursing injuries.
Midfielder Gennaro Gattuso was the latest first-team regular to join the casualty list when he twisted his knee in Sunday's 2-0 defeat by Atalanta, Milan's third loss in four Serie A matches.
With defenders Alessandro Nesta and Kakha Kaladze, and winger Serginho already on the sidelines, Milan must cobble together a competitive side for Wednesday's match against Brescia, one of five Serie B teams to come through the first three rounds.
The other four are Triestina, Arezzo, Napoli and Genoa. While the first two face difficult ties against AS Roma and Livorno, Napoli and Genoa have a good chance of progressing.
Napoli eliminated Juventus in the previous round and now face Parma, while Genoa will be aiming to add Empoli to a list of victims which already includes Fiorentina.
In other ties, Sampdoria take on Palermo and Reggina face Chievo Verona.