Davide Astori tributes to unite Italy and other Serie A talking points

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The Fiorentina fans gather for the funeral of Davide Astori.

A sombre mood is sure to be present when Serie A continues its return after the tragic and untimely death of Fiorentina captain Davide Astori forced the cancellation of last Sunday’s fixtures.

All eight games – not least the Viola’s versus Benevento – will witness players wearing a special patch on their jerseys saying #ciaoDavide13, while other emotional tributes should play out in the stands.

The action itself sees sides feature with differing fortunes in Europe during midweek, while fresh twists could occur in both the title fight and scrap against relegation.

Fiorentina v Benevento

The most testing and painful match in Fiorentina 91-year history awaits when bottom-placed Benevento visit a bereft Stadio Artemio Franchi.

It was only last Sunday that the Viola squad was delivered the gut-wrenching news their beloved skipper had died in his sleep before the game at Udinese.

Head coach Stefano Pioli and new captain Milan Badelj face the monumental task of refocusing the team on football, something lowly Benevento must do. They are scrapping for every point and cannot afford to let this game slip by.

Experienced ex-Brazil defensive midfielder Sandro’s absence through injury provides the visitors – who have lost five of their last six games – with another hurdle.

Prediction: 1-0

New Fiorentina captain Milan Badelj (l) playing against Juventus.

New Fiorentina captain Milan Badelj (l) playing against Juventus.

Juventus v Udinese

After the euphoria of Wembley, Juve return to the task of making it seven-successive Serie A-crowns.

An 11th top-flight win in a row during the earlier game at mid-table opponents will put them top of the table by two points for the first time since early September – for a few hours, at least, before leaders Napoli play.

But one of the heroes from the 2-1 victory at Tottenham that thrust them into the Champions League’s quarter-finals, veteran right-back Stefan Lichsteiner, is suspended.

As for Udinese, a miserly goal difference of -1 tells you everything about them. Giant Croatian striker Stipe Perica must be ruthless with his finishing against opponents who last kept out England predator Harry Kane.

Prediction: 3-0

Even with 10-men, Juventus won 6-2 at Udinese in October.

Even with 10-men, Juventus won 6-2 at Udinese in October.

Sassuolo v SPAL

Neighbours headed in different directions meet for this Emilia-Romagna derby.

Both precariously sit just two points off the relegation places. But while Sunday’s hosts have scored just three times and conceded 18 during an eight-match winless run in Serie A, the visiting Spallini have experienced a recuperative fortnight from which triumphs against Bologna and Crotone have sprung them towards – albeit, by playing one game more.

Their seven-goal top scorer Mirco Antenucci will be key in the absence of striker Marco Borriello.

Sinking Sassuolo will dream of winger Matteo Politano repeating his solitary strike from when the sides last met in October.

Prediction: 1-2

Matteo Politano celebrates after scoring the winner for Sassuolo versus SPAL.

Matteo Politano celebrates after scoring the winner for Sassuolo versus SPAL.

Genoa v AC Milan

Head coach Gennaro Gattuso must pick his Rossoneri players off the floor once again after their fine start to 2018 was ended in style by Arsenal.

Milan were favourites on Thursday to gain a first-leg advantage in the Europa League’s round of 16. But this 13-match unbeaten run was exploded by the Gunners.

To ensure slim hopes of qualifying for the Champions League do not see a similar fate, they will hope to add to a record of three wins in their last four visits to Genoa.

But extending this run won’t be easy. Mid-table Grifone have troubled Lazio and Internazionale in recent weeks, with pacey Uruguay winger Diego Laxalt in lethal form.

Prediction: 1-2

AC Milan head coach Gennaro Gattuso gestures during the loss to Arsenal.

AC Milan head coach Gennaro Gattuso gestures during the loss to Arsenal.

Internazionale v Napoli

A game of huge significance in the races for Champions League qualification and the scudetto is set to take place at San Siro.

Fifth-placed Inter have triumphed in two of their last three matches, but are still counting the cost of a previous eight-match winless run. As for Napoli, they have to bounce back from a shock 4-2 hounding by Roma that risks ending their ambition to land a first Serie A-title since the heady days of Diego Maradona in 1989/90.

But the Partenopei have lost just one of their last 10 meetings with Inter, while Italy forward Lorenzo Insigne has scored in his last three games.

It will take something special from Inter to deny them – and they’ve not looked capable of that for several months.

Prediction: 0-2

Lorenzo Insigne after scoring for Napoli in the 4-2 defeat to Roma.

Lorenzo Insigne after scoring for Napoli in the 4-2 defeat to Roma.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Milan Badelj

How the Croatia midfielder will wish he’d never received this chance to become Fiorentina’s new permanent skipper. Badelj spoke of Astori as the club’s “light” in his moving oration at the deceased centre-back’s funeral. These leadership skills will be required again with the visit of Benevento. A victory to mark Astori’s memory would be fitting.

Ciro Immobile

The Italy striker will feel a glorious opportunity awaits to seal his coronation as capocannoniere – Serie A’s top scorer. The competition’s 23-goal leading marksman has six goals in his last five games against Cagliari, has struck 14 times away from home this term and scored a neat goal in Thursday’s 2-2 Europa League draw with Dynamo Kiev.

Franck Kessie

A big game awaits the Ivory Coast midfielder at Genoa. His poor display against Arsenal is best remembered by a bizarre back pass which almost teed up opposing forward Danny Welbeck. Overall, the all-action 21-year-old is without a goal in nine run-outs. A timely end to this spell at Stadio Luigi Ferraris could further fuel Milan’s Champions League ambitions.

Lazio striker Ciro Immobile will be hoping for more good times versus Genoa.

Lazio striker Ciro Immobile will be hoping for more good times versus Genoa.

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