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Soccer: Juve host Roma in scudetto face-off

Totti, Pirlo back as Serie A ends two-week holiday

03 January, 17:03
Soccer: Juve host Roma in scudetto face-off (By Denis Greenan) (ANSA) - Rome, January 3 - All eyes will be on Turin Sunday night as Serie A leaders Juventus face closest rival AS Roma in a mouth-watering top-of-the-table clash as Italian soccer kicks back into action after a two-week festive break.

Juve's veteran inspirational playmaker Andrea Pirlo will be back pulling the strings for Juve, who are bidding for their third straight scudetto and 30th in all, not counting two stripped because of the 2006 Calciopoli scandal.

Roma's iconic and even older skipper Francesco Totti makes his second start after an October 10 injury that saw the unbeaten Romans sputter to five draws out of seven matches after a record opening run of 10 straight wins. "We can beat Juve," Totti told Rome daily Il Messaggero Friday.

"We're stronger than the Bianconeri, we aren't interested in a draw, we want to win. We've beaten the rest of the best, only Juve are left," said the 2006 World Cup winner, who scored the only goal in the teams' last league meeting in February. The Romans, hoping for their fourth title thanks to the splendid Indian summer of the 37-year-old Totti, are five points behind the Turin giants after 17 games.

Others likely to have an impact on the game, which starts at 19:45 GMT at the Juventus Stadium, are Juve's 20-year-old France midfielder Paul Pogba, who has played down January transfer window links to Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, Barcelona and Real Madrid, and 29-year-old Argentina striker Carlos Tevez, the Bianconeri's top scorer on 11 goals after moving from Manchester City in the closed season.

Roma fans will be hoping young centre-foward Mattia Destro continues to shine after a recent return from injury and fellow striker Gervinho keeps up a surprising leap in form since his move from Arsenal. Juve, on a nine-win run after their only defeat at fourth-placed Fiorentina, have the league's best attack with 39 goals scored while Roma boast the best defence with just seven conceded.

Both sides rounded off 2013 with emphatic pre-Christmas wins - Juve beating Atalanta 4-1 while Roma won 4-0 at home to Catania.

Juve have also been boosted by Antonio Conte receiving the Globe Soccer Award for best coach of the year.

"It is an award that makes me feel proud," the former Juve and Italy midfielder said.

"This prize inspires me to do even better," he said. Roma's French manager Rudi Garcia has earned plaudits in his first season after leaving multiple Ligue 1 champs Lille, lending the Giallorossi a fluid attacking game - until Totti's injury lay-off broke the flow - and making them the biggest surprise in Serie A.

"We're ready to give Juve a hard time. We are all in form.

It will be a crucial game," said Roma goalkeeper Morgan De Sanctis, the Italy sub for Juve great Gianluigi Buffon, who has looked unusually fallible on occasion this year.

But Buffon got a fillip from Juve and Italy legend Dino Zoff over the holidays.

"He's still the best around," said Zoff of the 35-year-old Italy keeper, who Azzurri coach Cesare Prandelli recently said was still "the first name I put down in my line-up".

Third-placed Napoli, five points behind Roma, take on 14th-placed Sampdoria at the San Paolo at 11:30 GMT on January 6.

Fiorentina, who have been playing some of the most entertaining football in Serie A this season, host second-last Livorno at 17:00 GMT on Sunday.