Serie A: Inter face tough test in Sicily
ROME, Nov 23 (Reuters) - Serie A leaders Inter Milan will aim to maintain their unbeaten record when they travel to second-placed Palermo on Sunday (kickoff 1930 GMT).
Inter started the season as clear favourites for the title after Juventus and AC Milan were punished in the match-fixing scandal.
But a canny close-season transfer campaign has established Palermo as one of Inter's main rivals.
An unexpected 1-0 defeat by Cagliari last weekend left the Sicilian side three points behind Inter, but a sell-out crowd at the Barbera stadium, where they have won five of their six matches this season, could give them the impetus to pull level.
Inter come into the match on the back of five wins in a row and having successfully secured passage to the knockout stage of the Champions League after a 1-0 win over Sporting Lisbon on Wednesday with a goal from Hernan Crespo.
Their coach Roberto Mancini conceded, however, that his team would have to play better than they did when they scraped past bottom-placed Reggina 1-0 at the weekend following Crespo's early strike.
'Our finishing needs to be sharper (and) we must...dictate the pace of the game more,' he was quoted as saying in La Gazzetta dello Sport.
'Sometimes there are matches in which the stronger side is forced to defend. Last Sunday, we really suffered against Reggina.
'They could have got a goal, though I don't think anyone could have complained if we had scored a second.'
Inter's victory against Reggina was soured slightly by a knee injury to in-form striker Julio Cruz, who is expected to be out until January.
'It's a shame about Cruz. He was in great form and the fact that he is injured will make things a little more difficult for us in the immediate future,' Mancini admitted.
'However, we still have (Zlatan) Ibrahimovic and Crespo, who are both 100 percent fit.
'Then there's also Adriano, who is only about 50 percent at the moment, but coming back into shape.'
Palermo will be without midfielder Fabio Simplicio, who picked up a red card at Cagliari.
The return of playmaker Eugenio Corini from suspension, however, should restore some of the vision that was lacking last weekend.
A draw between Inter and Palermo would suit AS Roma, who are four points off the pace in third.
Following their 7-0 demolition of Catania last weekend, Roma have the best attack and defence in Serie A and are mounting their strongest title bid since they finished second in 2004.
Their opponents on Sunday (kickoff 1400 GMT) are inconsistent Sampdoria, who held Inter to a draw in September, but gave one of their worst displays of the season to lose 1-0 to Torino three days ago.
At the lower end of the table, AC Milan will try to avoid losing more ground on the leaders by beating Messina at the San Siro (Saturday, 1930 GMT).
The tottering giants, who have won only one of their last nine Serie A matches, have a misfiring attack that has scored once in the last 11 games, though Brazilian striker Ricardo Oliveira could count himself unlucky after hitting the woodwork three times in the last two.
The main threat from the visitors promises to be striker Christian Rigano, who is the division's leading scorer with nine goals.