Rome: As Serie A gets set to resume this weekend after its holiday break, the biggest question isn't which club will win the Italian league, but rather which squad will be Juventus' top challenger. The possibilities are not lacking. While Juve holds an eight-point lead, the six squads that follow are grouped within nine points of each other.
Juventus lead with 44 points and Lazio are second with 36 points, followed by Fiorentina and Inter Milan (35 each), Napoli (34), Roma (32), and AC Milan (27). The January transfer window could be decisive, with Juve and Milan reportedly contending for Didier Drogba, Mario Balotelli could end up back in Italy, and there is also talk that Wesley Sneijder could move across town to Milan to conclude his contract feud with Inter.
The action resumes Saturday with Catania vs. Torino and Lazio vs. Cagliari. On Sunday, Juventus faces Sampdoria, Fiorentina hosts Pescara, Inter visits Udinese, Milan plays Siena and Roma is at Napoli. "(Juventus) has a fairly big lead but you never know in football," said 39-year-old Inter captain Javier Zanetti, who is in his 18th season with the club.
"We've just got to focus on doing everything we can to find ourselves back in the Champions League at the end of the season - and not think about how many points behind Juve we are," added Zanetti, who is planning to play at least one more season. Inter made one of the first moves of the transfer market by signing former Lazio captain Tommaso Rocchi to help out in attack - where Antonio Cassano, Rodrigo Palacio and Diego Milito have been carrying most of the load.
Another boost for Inter could come from midfielder Dejan Stankovic, who has resumed training after a long injury layoff. Lazio, led by Germany striker Miroslav Klose and Brazil playmaker Hernanes, has had a surprisingly successful start under first-year coach Vladimir Petkovic. "We're still not in position to compete with this Juve," Petkovic said. "Second place is a surprise. Only Juve is the anti-Juve. We've just got to continue as we have been doing then see where we are at the end. In the past two years, this squad has started well but then lacked something at the end of the season.
"We're aiming high, without fixing any precise goals," Petkovic added. Fiorentina has been another surprise, with first-year coach Vincenzo Montella highly lauded for gelling together a completely overhauled squad with 18 new players and one star holdover, playmaker Stevan Jovetic. "We're aiming for second place. We can compete with anyone, except Juve," Montella said.
Napoli also had a solid start but then struggled over the past couple months. Things got worse just before the break when the southern club was hit with a two-point penalty for match-fixing after its former goalkeeper confessed to arranging the result of a game three seasons ago. Also, Napoli captain Paolo Cannavaro and defender Gianluca Grava were each banned for six months for failing to report the fix.
However, appeals are expected. By contrast, Roma had trouble adapting to new coach Zdenek Zeman's all-out attacking style at the start, but found its footing in December by winning three of its four matches - including a 4-2 win over Milan in its last game before the break. That match aside, Milan also appeared on the rise before the break, led by league scoring leader Stephen El Shaarawy and his 14 goals.
However, both of Milan's Brazilian strikers, Alexandre Pato and Robinho, could leave during the transfer window - perhaps opening up space for Drogba or Balotelli - as the Rossoneri face Barcelona in the Champions League. Juventus, which has found success by evenly distributing its goals, might also want to shake things up with someone like Drogba as it next faces Celtic in the Champions League.
"The squad won't change much in January," said Juventus coach Antonio Conte, who returned last month from a four-match fixing ban stemming from when he coached Siena two seasons ago. "We'll make intelligent choices just like we did in June. We'll look to fill some gaps and if some big moves present themselves we won't let them slip away."