Leonardo Bonucci awaits a hot return and other Juventus v AC Milan talking points

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Leonardo Bonucci is finally settling in well at AC Milan.

Another chapter in the iconic rivalry between Juventus and AC Milan takes place on Saturday evening.

This clash usually defined the Serie A title race from the end of the 1980s until the turn of this decade. Now, only this weekend’s hosts at Allianz Stadium are involved in the scrap for the domestic game’s grandest trophy.

But with a Rossoneri revitalised under Gennaro Gattuso back in the picture for Champions League qualification, the stakes remain high on both sides.

Here are the talking points:

NICE TO SEE YOU, LEO

An expert sense of timing applies for Leonardo Bonucci, both in and out of the tackle.

A wild swing of the celebrated centre-back’s elbow against Genoa last October saw him miss out on an instant return to Juve, the club he’d contentiously left in the summer following 319 appearances and 12 major trophies.

This was almost an act of self-preservation. Bonucci was then, the poster boy for Milan’s misspent summer windfall, performing way below the high standards set during seven superb years in Turin.

Milan were swatted aside on that day in a deflated San Siro. Much has changed since.

Central to this has been the improved form of Bonucci. He now leads a defence that has kept clean sheets in its last three away matches in Serie A.

A positive reception from the Allianz crowd is anything-but certain. The same can’t be said about the shackles he will throw on Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala.

Leonardo Bonucci and family with the 2016/17 Serie A title.

Leonardo Bonucci and family with the 2016/17 Serie A title.

MASTER AND APPRENTICE

These are uncertain times for Italian football as the reality they will miss out on World Cup 2018 continues to sink in.

But one area in which they can remain bullish is the quality of their coaches.

November’s decision by Milan, ridiculed at the time, to dispense with Vincenzo Montella and promote club legend Gennaro Gattuso from the Primavera has proven a masterstroke.

The imminent signing of a contract extension is just reward for his remarkable turnaround. This includes a 10-game unbeaten run in Serie A and growing possibility Milan’s tumultuous campaign could yet end with a return to the Champions League for the first time since 2013/14.

In the opposite corner, Massimiliano Allegri is coveted across the continent. He is the master to Gattuso’s apprentice.

He was in charge of Milan the last time they won this fixture in March 2011. The scorer that day? None other than Gattuso.

Gennaro Gattuso of AC Milan celebrates scoring the winner at Juventus in March 2011.

Gennaro Gattuso of AC Milan celebrates scoring the winner at Juventus in March 2011.

OLD LADY’S JUGGLING ACT

The business end of the season is upon Juve.

They are locked in Europe’s only title race among the big-five leagues and have the small matter to come of Tuesday’s visit of Real Madrid in the Champions League’s quarter-finals.

After usurping Napoli at the top before the international break for the first time since September, they are determined to make it seven titles in a row.

Equally, this historic period for the Old Lady has a glaring omission – two appearances in the continental final have delivered two painful losses.

Instant revenge against 2016/17 conquerors Madrid is at hand. To do this, careful squad management is required.

Fortunately for Allegri, he can now count on the likes of Croatia striker Mario Mandzukic and Colombia winger Juan Cuadrado.

Smart rotation of his resources is key for the challenges ahead.

Massimiliano Allegri's squad management is about to be tested.

Massimiliano Allegri’s squad management is about to be tested.

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Inter Milan striker Mauro Icardi should top every shopping list and other Serie A talking points

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Mauro Icardi scored four goals for Inter Milan at Sampdoria.

Sunday’s Serie A matches will be remembered for one thing.

The incredible Mauro Icardi ended a goal drought that stretched back to January 5 in style, notching four times in a 5-0 win for Internazionale at Sampdoria.

Yet, there were also interesting developments at their city rivals and at the bottom of the table. Here, are the talking points.

ICARDI SHOULD BE IN DEMAND

If anyone had any serious doubts about Icardi following his return from injury, they were emphatically dismissed in Genoa.

He truly is the complete predator, his quartet including a header, penalty, sharp finish and volley.

What a way to become the sixth-youngest player to zoom past the 100-goal mark in Serie A throughout his career, plus make it 100 strikes in 172 games for Inter in all competitions.

With a contract extension yet to be signed and release clause reported to be an affordable €100 million (Dh451.7m), any giant club looking to buy a new No9 should shop at San Siro.

Icardi carries off-field baggage, yet his displays on the pitch cannot be denied. Real Madrid keep being linked with Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski, but Icardi is four-years his junior and still has much room to grow.

GATTUSO LAYS DOWN THE LAW

Gennaro Gattuso’s warrior reputation was unmatched during his lengthy service for AC Milan and Italy.

It looks like he’s lost none of his bite in the dugout. The Rossoneri edged past Chievo 3-2 as they forgot their European travails against Arsenal.

But the main talking point was Croatia striker Nikola Kalinic’s exclusion for poor commitment in training.

With so much drama surrounding the club off the field, he’s right to crack down on it.

Such stern leadership has been lacking at one of Europe’s leading clubs for far too long.

AC Milan coach Gennaro Gattuso embraces Patrick Cutrone at the end of the match between AC Milan and Chievo.

Gennaro Gattuso embraces Patrick Cutrone at the end of the match between AC Milan and Chievo.

BATTLE AT BOTTOM HEATS UP

The rat race to stay out of the relegation places continued to twist and turn during this latest round of matches.

Things are not looking promising for second-bottom Hellas Verona, for whom boss Fabio Pecchia played a dangerous game by lamenting his players’ attitude during a 5-0 thrashing by Atalanta.

Walter Zenga’s Crotone stay in the drop zone courtesy of their 2-0 loss at Roma, plus SPAL’s shock goalless draw with leaders Juventus and Sassuolo’s 2-1 win at Udinese – their first since December 23.

Benevento now need a miracle after Cagliari gained a healthy buffer courtesy of a 2-1 victory, with three of their goals against them this season coming after the 86th minute.

On current form, it is hard to look past the current bottom three when it comes to the dreaded drop down to Serie B.

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Juventus held by SPAL as Serie A title race takes new twist

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Frustrated: Paulo Dybala.

Juventus‘s march towards a seventh consecutive Serie A championship was stalled on Saturday by a goalless draw at struggling SPAL that kept the suspense alive in Italy.

Massimiliano Allegri’s side had been bidding to open a seven-point cushion on Napoli, who can now close the gap to two when they host Genoa on Sunday.

“I’m neither angry nor disappointed, we came up against a battling SPAL who fought us and played a wicked game,” said Allegri.

“They made many fouls, 29, to break up our game. These are not excuses, but things that can happen during the season.

“It’s only human that when you are top of the Serie A table, in the Champions League quarter-finals and the Italian Cup final, you can miss a beat and lack energy once in a while.

“The positive thing is that we kept a clean sheet and still have a five-point advantage.”

Juventus’s 12-match league winning streak came to a halt but they matched their own Serie A record of 10 games without conceding a goal.

The champions lacked inspiration against the promoted side from Ferrara, to the north of Bologna, with normally reliable goal machines Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain failing to fire.

It was the first time in nearly 50 years that Juventus had played in Ferrara and they came up against a solid and well-organised SPAL unit.

Juventus almost scored in their first attack of the night when a Douglas Costa solo run created space for fellow Brazilian Alex Sandro but his effort was deflected wide.

Dybala tried his luck after 17 minutes with a long-range curling effort that flew wide.

There was also a worry three weeks before their Champions League quarter-final first leg against Real Madrid with Giorgio Chiellini leaving the pitch 10 minutes before the end with a thigh injury which Allegri later said was “muscle fatigue”.

Costa missed a golden chance to break the deadlock as the clock ticked with Mario Mandzukic also sending a late diving header wide.

Juventus’s next match after the international break will be against AC Milan in Turin on March 31.

“Fortunately there is a break,” said Allegri.

“We have time to regroup, to recover some injuries and, above all energy and get back into position, physically and mentally, then we will think about Milan and Real Madrid.”

Promoted to the top flight this season after a 49-year absence, SPAL are one point above the relegation zone with 25 points from 29 games.

“There’s a long way to go, but tonight SPAL showed that we belong in Serie A,” said coach Leonardo Semplici of his side’s best run in form this season with eight points from four games.

“It’ll be a battle (for the title) to the end, but right now Juventus remain the favourites,” added Semplici of the title chase.

“Juve have the experience of a side used to challenging on many different fronts and have a bigger squad, but Napoli are to be respected for their style of football and organisation.”

Earlier Sassuolo got their first win since December, triumphing 2-1 to condemn Udinese to a fifth consecutive defeat.

Iraqi international Ali Adnan conceded an own goal after 42 minutes but two minutes later Seko Fofana pulled hosts Udinese level.

Stefano Sensi scored the winner 15 minutes from time to give Sassuolo breathing space as they move away from the relegation zone.

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