Zlatan Ibrahimovic has vowed to kick-start struggling AC Milan’s Serie A season as their local rivals Inter Milan recommence a title battle with Juventus this weekend after the end of the winter break.
Milan play host to Sampdoria on Monday, their first game since the humiliating 5-0 goal defeat to Atalanta last month which sparked Ibrahimovic’s return.
“I’m ready and I really hope I can play,” said the 38-year-old Ibrahimovic as he returned to Milan nine years after his departure for Paris Saint-Germain.
“Things need to be improved on the pitch and that’s why I’m here. I know what I have to do, Zlatan is still here.”
Seven-time European champions Milan are 11th in the table, 14 points off the Champions League places and just seven points clear of the relegation zone.
By contrast Inter are challenging champions Juventus’ hegemony at the top of Serie A, with both sides level on 42 points after 17 games.
Antonio Conte’s Inter travel to Napoli, while Juve are at home against sixth-placed Cagliari, this season’s surprise package who are well in the hunt for Champions League football.
Inter Milan have not won at Napoli’s Stadio San Paolo since October 1997 but last season’s runners-up are eighth this term, with Gennaro Gattuso replacing Carlo Ancelotti last month.
“Inter have been strong in previous years but they have improved even more under Conte,” said Napoli defender Mario Rui.
“They will make us suffer, but we are ready.”
Juventus return to action after their Italian Super Cup defeat to Lazio against a Cagliari side that had been in impressive form before back-to-back losses.
Meanwhile red-hot Lazio, six points behind in third with a game in hand, are looking increasingly dangerous.
Simone Inzaghi’s side, who have not lost since their 1-0 defeat to Inter in late September, can push their league winning streak to nine games against relegation-threatened Brescia.
The Roman side have scored two goals or more in each of their last 11 league games since that Inter defeat, the first team to achieve that feat since the legendary ‘Grande Torino’ side back in 1948.
One point behind Lazio in fourth are capital city rivals Roma, who host Torino amid takeover talks with US billionaire Dan Friedkin.
Fiorentina and Genoa start the calendar year with new coaches.
Giuseppe Iachini’s first game with 15th-placed Fiorentina will be at Bologna, a team they are unbeaten against in 10 games.
Bottom club Genoa have brought in reinforcements for Davide Nicola’s first game against Sassuolo.
Italy goalkeeper Mattia Perin returns from Juventus along with Swiss midfielder Valon Behrami and Bologna striker Mattia Destro.
One to watch:
As veteran Ibrahimovic prepares to start for AC Milan, fellow Swede Dejan Kulusevski, 19, returns to Parma on loan after signing a five-year deal with champions Juventus.
The promising teenager has had a breakthrough season since going on loan from Atalanta to Parma in June, scoring four goals and setting up another seven in 17 games. He will be up against his parent club this weekend.
“I’ve heard great things about Kulusevski,” said Ibrahimovic of the player who has more to Juve in a deal worth nearly 44 million euros ($49 million).
23 - Years since Inter’s last win at Napoli
17 - Ciro Immobile’s goals for title-chasing Lazio
16 - Shot-shy AC Milan’s goals so far this season as they await Ibrahimovic
11 - The points gap between Napoli and the Champions League places
8 - Lazio’s league winning streak
2 - Fiorentina’s points from their last seven games
Brescia v Lazio, SPAL v Verona, Genoa v Sassuolo, AS Roma v Torino
Bologna v Fiorentina, AC Milan v Sampdoria, Juventus v Cagliari, Atalanta v Parma, Lecce v Udinese, Napoli v Inter Milan