Juventus league title bid feeling fixture pinch
By Justin Davis ,AFP Saturday, February 22, 2014, 12:03 am TWN
ROME -- Juventus coach Antonio Conte leads his side into Sunday's derby against Torino fearing the champions' bid for a third consecutive scudetto could be hampered by their Europa League ambitions.
Juve hold a nine-point lead over Roma in Italy's Serie A, which could be cut to six if Rudi Garica's men win their game in hand over Parma, with Napoli a distant third a further four points off the pace.
At just past the halfway point stage, it looks to be a two-horse race for the title but Conte has refused to rule out slip-ups along the way.
"It's a crucial point in the season as regards the league and Europe so it's now we should be concentrating most," Conte said prior to a 2-0 first-leg win over Trabzonspor in the last 32 of the Europa League.
"My warning is simple: we have to be extra vigilant. We've got 14 games left, plus a 15th if you count the players who will be on international (friendly) duty.
"I need everyone to be in shape both physically and mentally."
After a disastrous Champions League campaign ended at the group stage, Juve, as well as league rivals Napoli and Fiorentina, are in contention for Europa League glory.
But Juve's next test on the domestic front comes against a Torino side that has lost only twice in their last 12 games, their last win a surprise 3-1 rout of Verona on Monday.
Along with Verona, Torino have been one of the surprise packages this season and club sporting director Gianluca Petrachi pointed to forward Ciro Immobile as one of the driving forces behind the club's bid for a place in Europe.
"He's making huge progress. Last summer (coach, Giampiero) Ventura were the only ones that could see his potential," Petrachi told Tuttosport newspaper.
"No one would have bet anything on him but we did and so far we're reaping the dividends."
While Roma will be expected to help Garcia prolong the 50th birthday he celebrated on Friday by winning away to Bologna on Saturday, anything less than a win for Juve be a huge boost to the Giallorossi.
Roma underlined their scudetto hopes with a comprehensive 3-0 win over Sampdoria last week — after which Garcia hit out at the team's detractors following their Cup semi-final exit at the hands of Napoli.
"We've gone out, scored three goals and conceded none. We're nine points behind Juve with a game in hand, and I think we've shown how strong we are," said Garcia.
Napoli, like Juve, are eyeing a double silverware this season with one eye on the Europa League and the other on the Italian Cup final, against Fiorentina, on May 3.
Having also been in Europa League action, away to Swansea on Thursday, the Partenopei are not in action until Monday when Genoa visit the San Paolo.
Inter Milan sit in fifth despite only recently putting an end to a terrible run of results, thanks to consecutive wins at home to Sassuolo and away to Fiorentina.
However there is plenty of room for improvement and ahead of hosting Cagliari new club owner Erick Thohir said: "We have full points from the last two games. I think we have a good team right now.
"It's more balanced with more options in attack. It's the same for the defence, thanks to Walter Samuel who has been solid in the last two games."
City rivals AC Milan, meanwhile, have a tricky away encounter at Sampdoria, only four days after a 1-0 home defeat to Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their last 16 Champions League tie.
Milan may be without striker Mario Balotelli, who came off injured in Wednesday's defeat at the San Siro.
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