Milan make their pitch for the title

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The Independent Online
Milan restart their Italian league title chase after the Christmas break with a returfed San Siro pitch and a one-point lead over second- placed Fiorentina.

The league leaders, who entertain Sampdoria tomorrow, have drawn their last two home games against Napoli and Torino.

On both occasions the Milan coach Fabio Capello argued that the poor condition of the pitch had handicapped his side's attacking game.

Milan's strikeforce against Sampdoria will be led by the newly crowned European Footballer of the Year, George Weah, flanked by Roberto Baggio and Marco Simone.

Dejan Savicevic is not yet fully fit and he will be replaced by Zvonimir Boban in midfield alongside Marcel Desailly and Demetrio Albertini.

For the second time this season Sampdoria turn to a second- choice goalkeeper in 21-year-old Matteo Sereni. The regular keeper Angelo Pagotto, who is to undergo a knee cartilage operation, originally came into the side at the start of the season following an injury to former Italian international Walter Zenga.

Fiorentina travel to face in-form Roma, who beat champions Juventus 2-0 in Turin on the final day of 1995.

This match brings together two Swedish midfielders, Jonas Thern of Roma and Stefan Schwarz of Fiorentina who began their professional careers together at Swedish club Malmo.

Thern argues that Fiorentina's successful season owes a lot to Schwarz. "He's an inspirational figure on the field, a player who always wants to win, who never gives up." he said.

"If this year's Fiorentina are a much improved side, much of that is because of Schwarz's arrival."

Schwarz, in his first season in Italian football since moving from Arsenal, is unconcerned about playing against his old friend.

"For me, it'll be just another game. There are no special games or opponents." he said.

The game also provides an Argentine derby in attack where Fiorentina look to Gabriel Batistuta, leading marksman on the 10-goal mark, and Roma to Abel Balbo. Both sides will be at full strength.

The champions Juventus, currently fifth six points behind Milan, travel to Bergamo to face Atalanta, the side who knocked them out of the Italian Cup in October.

Juventus coach Marcello Lippi may drop Fabrizio Ravanelli in attack, recalling Alessandro Del Piero who was rested for two games prior to the Christmas break.

Atalanta will look to the experience of their Uruguyan defenders Jose Herrera and Paolo Montero to contain Juventus.

Parma, three points behind Milan in third place, recall Bulgarian Hristo Stoichkov to partner Gianfranco Zola in attack for their difficult away clash with Torino.

Parma will be penalised by the absence of midfielder Massimo Crippa and defender Fabio Cannavaro, both suspended, while Torino will also be without a key player in the suspended Ghanaian Abedi Pele.

Atletico Madrid are hoping that the absence of two top players this weekend will not affect the form that has given them a seven-point lead at the top of the Spanish first division.

Atletico will be without Spanish internationals Jose Luis Caminero and Kiko Narvaez for the home match against mid-table Tenerife, while rivals Barcelona and Espanyol face more difficult games.

Caminero, who picked up a yellow card in Wednesday's 3-1 win at Salamanca, and Narvaez, who limped off with an ankle injury, have been key figures in Atletico's revival this season.

The absence of Narvaez - who could be out for four weeks - will probably mean the debut of striker Juan Carlos Gomez, while Caminero's place in midfield will be filled by Roberto Fresnedoso, who has come on as substitute in several games this season.

Sitting on their lead, Atletico are already assured of reaching the halfway stage in the championship in top spot with two games still to play.

Curiously coach Radomir Antic's impressive record - won 14, drawn three, lost two - is identical to that he had when he was dismissed from Real Madrid in January 1992.

Real lost that league title, and have not done much to suggest they can take this year's championship.

Currently 12 points off the pace in sixth, Real desperately need to win away at Merida if they are to retain the league. With teenage forward Raul Gonzalez injured, coach Jorge Valdano is likely to turn to Jose Amavisca to add fire-power up front.

Second-placed Barcelona travel to Celta Vigo without midfielders Ivan de la Pena and Roger Garcia, who picked up red and yellow cards respectively in Thursday's last-minute 2-1 victory over Espanyol.

Johan Cruyff's team were flattered by that result and will have to pull out all the stops at Celta, who showed their class with a 3-0 mid-week win away at high-flying Real Betis.

Espanyol - who trail Barcelona only on goal average - face a tough game at home to fifth-placed Valencia whose Brazilian World Cup star Viola is finally beginning to find his form after a shaky start to the season.

Athletic Bilbao take on Real Sociedad in the Basque derby looking for their 900th victory in the first division. After dominating Spanish football in the early 1980s both clubs are currently in the doldrums, with Athletic in 10th and Sociedad in 13th place. It all points to a vital weekend in the race to be crowned the kings of Spain.