Milan start favourites against Inter as rivals battle to catch Juventus

Click to follow
The Independent Football

With Juventus threatening to disappear over the Serie A horizon, their Milanese rivals meet tomorrow night in what is increasingly looking like an eliminator for the role of chief rivals to the runaway defending champions. Juve are already eight points clear of Milan and 10 ahead of Internazionale. With Juve at home to the relegation contenders Cagliari this weekend, both teams at the San Siro know defeat is likely to cast them further adrift.

Milan start favourites having established a firm supremacy over Inter in recent seasons. Last season they compiled three wins and a draw in four derbies including back-to-back victories in the semi-finals of the Champions' League.

But Carlo Ancelotti's team have been vulnerable lately being beaten by Chievo last weekend then only just edging out Schalke 04 in midweek to snatch a place in the knock-out stages of the Champions' League. However Kaka, their Brazilian playmaker, insisted: "I don't know what frame of mind Inter will bring into this match but we are in a wonderful mood."

Having scored twice in midweek he may be confident but, given their defensive doubts, are his team? Paolo Maldini is expected to start despite suffering a thigh strain against Schalke while Alessandro Nesta is still recovering from a mild bout of flu.

The problem for the Inter coach, Roberto Mancini, is who partners Adriano in attack. Alvaro Recoba was injured last week while Obafemi Martins is struggling for form. Mancini could opt to deploy Adriano alone up front with Luis Figo, Juan Sebastian Veron and Dejan Stankovic in support.

In Spain the focus is, as ever, on the dug-out, or "electric bench" as it has become known, at Real Madrid. The caretaker coach, Juan Ramon Lopez Caro, faces his first domestic test when Real visit Malaga tomorrow. Lopez Caro was snatched from the relative obscurity of Real's youth team to replace Wanderley Luxemburgo when the Brazilian was sacked last Sunday and lost his first game in Greece, against Olympiakos, in midweek.

Real, fourth in the table , six points behind the leaders Barcelona, have an injury doubt over Ronaldo and David Beckham is suspended.

Barcelona will chase an 11th consecutive win in all competitions at home to Seville tomorrow while second-placed Osasuna host Real Mallorca the same day.

In Germany, Hamburg will hope to prove they can maintain their challenge to the leaders, Bayern Munich, despite the playmaker Rafael van der Vaart suffering a broken foot which will keep him out for two months. Hamburg meet Hertha Berlin today while Bayern play Kaiserslautern on Sunday.

In France Lyon, who are 11 points clear, hope form does not follow the cliché and "go out of the window" for tomorrow's local derby away to St-Etienne.

The series celebrating those players who underperformed here, only to prove they were not quite so useless when they moved abroad again.

Didn't he used to be rubbish? Marco Materazzi (Inter)

Communal team baths have gone out of fashion in football club dressing-rooms, not least for hygiene reasons, but at Goodison Park there are deep individual tubs for players who like a soak.

Which was good news for both Marco Materazzi if not the attendant who had to keep filling his "early baths".

Materazzi was dismissed three times for Everton in the 1998-99 season. It was not what Walter Smith anticipated when he signed the player for £2.8m from Perugia.

Those dismissals, together with eight yellow cards and a number of costly defensive errors meant it was no surprise when Materazzi was sold back to Perugia after 12 months.

What was surprising was that Everton made a £200,000 profit on the deal.

But perhaps Smith's original judgement, and Perugia's later one, were right. Last month Materazzi won his 23rd cap for Italy against Ivory Coast.

He was one of only four Italians to play the full 90 minutes while Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta stayed on the bench.

Materazzi moved to Internazionale in 2001 and has remained with the Milan giants. He occasionally registers with Premiership players when tangling with them in European competition - notably when he provoked Craig Bellamy into a red card when playing Newcastle.