Football

5 things to know about the Italian league

MILAN (AP) — Heading into the winter break, Inter Milan will host AC Milan in the Italian league.

Also, league leader Juventus will visit Atalanta, while second-place Roma — the only unbeaten side in Serie A — hosts Catania. Here are five things to know ahead of this weekend's matches:

DERBY DELLA MADONNINA

The 222nd official Milan derby, or the Derby della Madonnina as it is known in Italy, is set for Sunday.

The matchup between Inter Milan and AC Milan is considered one of the major derbies in the world. But unlike in other major derby matches, it is rare to see trouble between the two sets of fans.

That was not always the case but a non-aggression pact made in 1983 — following the death of an Inter fan — still holds firm today.

The fans reserve their vitriol for the players on the field and Milan forward Mario Balotelli can expect some abuse after a troubled few seasons at Inter.

The derby derives its name from the statue of the Virgin Mary on top of Milan's Duomo, known as the Madonnina. Whichever team wins is said to have been favored by the Madonnina.

WITHOUT SUPPORT

Inter Milan faces the prospect of a derby match without the support of its staunchest fans.

Inter, which is deemed the home team for Sunday's match, has had its Curva Nord closed because of anti-territorial chants during its match against Napoli.

"A derby without the Curvas loses its appeal," Inter captain Javier Zanetti said.

Inter is appealing against the sanction, while AC Milan has given its backing to its rival.

"I talked to (Inter chief executive) Marco Fassone, we're going to see if we can get this ban postponed," Milan vice president Adriano Galliani said. "There's no sense to it. It's awful when you go into a stadium and you see a sector empty."

Inter is fifth, nine points above Milan, which hasn't won a derby match since 2011.

FANS BANNED

Roma will also have one of its main sectors closed for Sunday's match against Catania.

The club is appealing against the ban, which was imposed following racist chanting in Monday's 2-2 draw at AC Milan.

"We're against any form of racial discrimination and we have shown this by proposing several times to the federation and the league, various initiatives to fight racism," Roma general director Mauro Baldissoni said. "We're trying to understand what happened Monday night in Milan. We have video evidence which proves that there were no racist chants."

Roma is looking to end the year on a positive note after five draws and a win in its past six games saw it lose ground on Juventus. It remains the only unbeaten side in Serie A, however.

RIGHT TRACK

Roma striker Mattia Destro is targetting a place in Italy's World Cup squad after making a goal-scoring return from injury.

Destro was out for several months at the start of the year with a knee injury and, although he returned, he was forced to sit out the opening three months of the season with more problems.

The 22-year-old Destro scored on his comeback against Fiorentina and followed that up with another goal against AC Milan on Monday.

"I have to take things one step at a time," Destro said. "I'm really attached to the national side, but first I have to recover my best form."

Destro hopes first to win the Serie A title with Roma.

"We are strong, we play well and we're a great group," he said. "But Juve and Napoli are strong, and the bianconeri are more used to winning."

PEPE'S BACK

Juventus winger Simone Pepe is set for a long-awaited return to Serie A after making his first appearance in more than a year.

Pepe made his comeback from injury in Juventus' 3-0 win over Avellino in the last 16 of the Italian Cup on Wednesday.

"It's been a long way back but I feel I can say the nightmare is finally over," he said. "I need to work to regain full fitness and reach the same levels as my teammates.

"I'm not one who easily gets emotional, but I must admit I felt it when I heard the crowd's roar tonight. I need to thank the fans, as well as my family and teammates, for supporting me throughout."

Juventus visits Atalanta on Sunday looking for a ninth straight win and a ninth straight clean sheet.

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