Juve's grip on Serie A lead could be in question

ANDREW DAMPF AP Sports Writer Published:

ROME (AP) -- Juventus' grip on the Serie A lead doesn't appear so firm anymore, and there's more than one club within striking distance of the defending champions as the season's midpoint approaches.

AC Milan had struggled all season but beat Juventus 1-0 last weekend as the Turin club appeared exhausted from its emphatic victory over Chelsea in the Champions League a few days earlier. It was Juve's second loss this season, after going all of last campaign unbeaten.

It doesn't get any easier this weekend for Juve, which faces Torino in a derby four days before another key European match at Shakhtar Donetsk.

Juventus is two points ahead of Napoli and four points in front of Fiorentina and Inter Milan, while Lazio is six points back.

Napoli hosts last-place Pescara this weekend, Inter faces struggling Palermo and Fiorentina puts its eight-match unbeaten streak on the line against Sampdoria.

"The title race is very open but we have the obligation to believe in ourselves, that's part of Juventus' DNA," Juventus CEO Giuseppe Marotta said.

However, there are signs of friction within the squad.

Juventus forward Fabio Quagliarella was captured on video uttering an apparent insult to assistant coach Angelo Alessio when he was substituted against Milan.

"He was given a fine, but after a calm discussion," Marotta said. "The club is rigid when it comes to behavior."

Key striker Mirko Vucinic has not scored since Oct. 23 against Nordsjaelland in the Champions League. His last Serie A goal came Sept. 16 against Genoa.

The derby marks the final Serie A match of a four-month ban for Juventus head coach Antonio Conte, inflicted for failing to report match-fixing when he led Siena two seasons ago.

In the injury department, key Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini has a calf problem, midfielder Arturo Vidal is struggling with a pulled thigh muscle and defender Martin Caceres has a bad ankle.

The Turin derby hasn't been played since March 2009, when Juventus won 1-0. The match is known locally as the "Derby della Mole," after the Mole Antonelliana, a landmark building in Turin.

Torino hasn't scored against Juve since Feb. 2002 and hasn't won the derby since April, 1995.

Playing a second string side, Torino warmed up for the derby with a 2-0 loss to Siena on Wednesday that eliminated it from the Italian Cup.

Meanwhile, Napoli is looking forward to the return of its leading scorer Edinson Cavani from suspension, although fellow forward Goran Pandev is still out with an injured ankle.

"This last week has been great for us," said Napoli forward Marek Hamsik, who scored a late goal in a 1-0 win at Cagliari on Monday. "Advancing in the Europa League with a match to spare gives us more tranquility for Serie A and the win over Cagliari brought us back near the top of the table."

Napoli hasn't won Serie A since Diego Maradona led the club to the title in 1987 and 1990.

Fiorentina's only titles came in 1956 and 1969 but new coach Vincenzo Montella has done well to mold together a squad with 18 new players. Star player Stevan Jovetic has been out recently with a muscle injury.

Inter was performing well until getting beaten 1-0 by Parma on Monday without Antonio Cassano, who is still suspended. Also, a feud with playmaker Wesley Sneijder is turning into a major distraction after global footballers' union FIFPro highlighted his recent exclusion and called for talks with FIFA, UEFA and the European Union about clubs using "blackmail behavior" to force players into signing new contracts.

As for Milan, club president and former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi has visited with the squad again to motivate the players ahead of a visit to Catania on Friday.

Also this weekend, it's: Bologna vs. Atalanta; Genoa vs. Chievo; Lazio vs. Parma; Siena vs. Roma; and Udinese vs. Cagliari.