For the first time this season, AC Milan have been wounded – and the Serie A title race is now well and truly wide open.
The Rossoneri were beaten 3-1 at home by reigning champions Juventus on Wednesday night in their first league defeat of the season, thanks to a brace from winger Federico Chiesa.
After years of Juventus dominance, the race for the Scudetto looks as open as it has ever been – with as many as eight teams eyeing up Italy’s top prize.
Juventus’ win at AC Milan on Wednesday night has blown the Serie A title race wide open…
As many as eight teams are in the hunt in what is the most open Scudetto race in years
Wednesday’s night result at the San Siro is made even more important by the fact that four out of the top five play each other this weekend.
In-form Roma in third host second-placed Inter Milan, while Juventus will be hoping to keep their momentum high when they host surprise package Sassuolo.
Sportsmail looks at the state of play at the top of the Italian table and identifies the strengths and weaknesses of the title hopefuls…
1st – AC Milan – 37 points (Played 16)
Defeat by Juventus should not dampen Milan’s mood – the Rossoneri have been imperious since the start of the season and the San Siro setback should be only seen as a blip.
Stefano Pioli’s side remain top of Serie A even though Zlatan Ibrahimovic has missed the last eight matches with a calf injury.
AC Milan’s young stars managed by Stefano Pioli (second left) still lead the way at the top
Milan have dealt with the absence of veteran talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic due to injury
The Swedish striker, who helped the club win their last Serie A title back in 2011, has scored 10 goals in just nine league games this season but Milan’s younger stars have stepped up in the 39-year-old’s place.
Rafael Leao, Alexis Saelemaekers, Brahim Diaz and Jens Petter Hauge are all promising 21-year-olds who have led the line well in Ibrahimovic’s absence, with Pioli rotating them with the more experienced Hakan Calhanoglu, Ante Rebic and Samu Castillejo at times.
Sandro Tonali, 20, has provided an excellent base with Franck Kessie in midfield, while the likes of Theo Hernandez and Diogo Dalot are experienced on the big stage in their early-20s having joined from Real Madrid and Manchester United respectively.
Sandro Tonali (left) is forming a solid midfield partnership with Franck Kessie (right)
What will favour Milan in their title charge is their next run of fixtures, as Pioli’s men mainly face sides near the bottom of the table before facing city rivals Inter in the derby on February 21.
That run, coupled with a potential return of Ibrahimovic, will be vital in their bid to become Italian champions for the first time in a decade.
2nd – Inter Milan – 36 points (Played 16)
Antonio Conte’s side looked to be hitting all the right notes when they recorded their eighth straight league win with a 6-2 victory over Crotone last weekend, with Lautaro Martinez scoring a hat-trick.
But a sloppy 2-1 defeat at Claudio Ranieri’s Sampdoria on Wednesday night not only cost the Nerazzurri a spot at the top of the league but also revealed the glaring reliance on Romelu Lukaku for attacking inspiration.
Antonio Conte (right) is heavily reliant on Romelu Lukaku (left) for attacking inspiration
While Lukaku was rested in midweek, Alexis Sanchez missed a penalty in the loss at Sampdoria
The Belgian, who has 12 goals in 15 Serie A matches this season, was rested for the midweek clash in Genoa but watched on from the bench as his side went 2-0 down at half-time with replacement Alexis Sanchez missing a penalty when the score was goalless.
After a slow start to the campaign, Conte appears to have a fixed starting line-up with reliable options coming off the bench.
A lot is asked of regular full-backs Achraf Hakimi and Ashley Young but Matteo Darmian and Ivan Perisic have impressed in those same roles when called upon.
Conte has the firepower but history shows the season can easily blow up straight in his face
The Inter coach can also rely on back-up options Aleksandr Kolarov and Arturo Vidal to compliment the exciting Alessandro Bastoni and Nicolo Barrella who are taking part in their first season as serious title challengers.
Conte therefore has the attacking power and the depth, especially up front, to clinch the title for Inter but, as we’ve seen with the Italian manager before, the season is capable of blowing up in his face.
Victory over Roma would show the strength they have in this title race, but the Giallorossi will pose problems of their own on Conte’s side.
3rd – Roma – 33 points (Played 16)
Under new owner Dan Friedkin, Roma look to be heading towards new beginnings on the pitch.
The days of concern under James Pallotta are over and five wins in their last six Serie A games has now hauled the Giallorossi straight into this title fight.
A reliance on Edin Dzeko for goals is also no more. In fact, it’s another former Premier League star who is becoming Roma’s main man this season.
AS Roma are looking like outside contenders to win their first Serie A title in 20 years
Henrikh Mkhitaryan is their main source for goals this season with 15 contributions this term
Henrikh Mkhitaryan has stolen the show for Paulo Fonseca’s side this season with eight goals and seven assists in the league.
After starring at Borussia Dortmund but flopping at Manchester United and Arsenal, the Armenian is reminding fans why he was so highly-rated in the first place with some impressive displays.
Roma have done well to recruit players with title-winning experience at the highest level in recent years. As well as Dzeko and Mkhitaryan, the Giallorossi also have former Chelsea winger Pedro, defender Chris Smalling and striker Borja Mayoral.
Edin Dzeko (left) and former Chelsea winger Pedro bring some much-needed experience
This experience at the top helps the youngsters alongside them which include Italy international Gianluca Mancini, Gonzalo Villar and Marash Kumbulla – who have all impressed this season.
The next two games will help define what this Roma side is really about this season. A title six-pointer against Inter is swiftly followed with a mouth-watering derby with Lazio.
If Fonesca’s side carry on their run, then discussion of a first title in 20 years is not so far-fetched.
4th – Juventus – 30 points (Played 15)
It’s never over until the Old Lady sings. Andrea Pirlo’s side were title outsiders over Christmas but the reigning champions showed their metal away at Milan on Wednesday.
There is still much to fear about this Juventus team. They, of course, have the league’s most dangerous player in Cristiano Ronaldo, but there are several secret gems in this side too.
Andrea Pirlo’s Juventus are back in the hunt following their impressive win at AC Milan
Winger Federico Chiesa is becoming Pirlo’s secret weapon with four goals in his last five league games – including two at the San Siro against Milan.
Midfielder Weston McKennie, another scorer against the league leaders, is enjoying an enjoyable first season in Italy on loan from Schalke.
The all-action American midfielder has three goals and two assists in 17 appearances and is even keeping £65million signing Arthur Melo out of the team.
There is also no surprise that when Paulo Dybala plays as the main man, Juventus do well.
Cristiano Ronaldo (right) and Paulo Dybala (left) are clicking at the right time for Pirlo’s side
Last year’s Serie A MVP is often played in a deeper role to accommodate Alvaro Morata as a No 9, but Dybala has a goal and two assists in the last two games he has been used up front while the Spanish striker has been suspended.
Pirlo’s problem is that a liking for Morata, Rodrigo Bentancur and Aaron Ramsey means that the club’s most promising stars – including Dybala, McKennie and Dejan Kulusevski – are either dropped or shoehorned into different areas.
The Italian coach needs continuity following some inconsistent results recently. League games against Sassuolo, Inter, Roma and Napoli all await before the Champions League distraction returns.
5th – Sassuolo – 29 points (Played 16)
To say Sassuolo are a surprise package may be a little harsh. This is the side that finished eighth in the league last season and threatened to barge in on the Europa League spots.
But Roberto de Zerbi’s men are one of the most exciting teams to watch in Italy. To put it in simple terms, Sassuolo games bring goals.
Surprise package Sassuolo have brought about a lot of goals in their Serie A games this season
The Emiliana-Romagna side started the season strongly by hitting four goals in three consecutive league games at the start of the season.
Their impressive front three was to thank for that form. Club legend Domenico Berardi is part of the furniture on the right with former Chelsea winger Jeremie Boga often used on the left.
Between them is veteran Ciccio Caputo – who is quite simply the Jamie Vardy of Italian football.
The 33-year-old has risen through the divisions and is getting even better with age. Caputo netted 21 goals in the league last season and has six in his first 11 this time around.
Francesco ‘Ciccio’ Caputo is the talisman and prime goalscorer for Roberto de Zerbi’s side
Though all that attacking talent leaves a lot of holes in defence – which has let the title pretenders down in recent weeks.
After De Zerbi hit the right balance with five clean sheets in six games during November and the middle of December, Sassuolo are yet to complete a successful shutout in the five games since.
De Zerbi’s men even conceded after just six seconds at home to AC Milan – showing how vulnerable their backline can be.
That will please the likes of Ronaldo and Dybala when Sassuolo visit Turin this weekend, but Saturday evening’s clash is the one to watch.
6th – Napoli (28 points) – Played 15
Gennaro Gattuso’s Napoli sit one point behind Sassuolo with a game in hand but missed the chance to move back into contention with a 2-1 loss at home to Spezia.
Gattuso helped create an exciting attack with Hirving Lozano, Lorenzo Insigne and Victor Osimhen but a long-term shoulder injury has ruled the latter out for most of this season.
In midfield, Fabian Ruiz and Piotr Zielinski do plenty at the top end of the pitch and are often a source for goals.
Gennaro Gattuso’s (right) Napoli show promise but lack consistency in their results
Victor Osimhen (left) has been an injury absentee and is needed to help Hirving Lozano (left)
But question marks are still out about several areas of the squad. Attackers such as Andrea Petagna and Matteo Politano are good but not top-class players for a title charge. Tiemoune Bakayoko has shown at Chelsea and AC Milan that he is far from the player he was at Monaco.
Napoli’s fixture list looks kind until the visit of Juventus in the middle of February. If Gattuso’s men can put inconsistency behind them and get Osimhen back on the pitch and scoring – there may be a small chance of success this season.
And what about the others?
Atalanta were the league’s great entertainers last season but have struggled to replicate their free-scoring form last term.
The future of talisman Papu Gomez has been an unwelcome distraction amid links to Italy’s bigger sides – keeping the 32-year-old on the books would be useful as they sit level on points with Napoli with the same amount of games played.
Both Atalanta and Lazio have failed to live up to the hype they generated in Italy last season
The story is similar for Simone Inzaghi’s Lazio who are struggling to build on the fourth-placed finish they earned last season.
The Biancolesti’s recent success has been founded on very few changes to the team over the past two or three years but some areas of the squad need to be refreshed
The good news is that Ciro Immobile is still a man to rely on with 11 goals in 14 league matches this season. The likes of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Joaquin Correa need to do more to help him up front.