Inter Milan will seek to preserve their position as Serie A leaders when they entertain Sassuolo on Sunday and their lofty status comes as a surprise to forward Rodrigo Palacio.
Roberto Mancini’s men are a point clear of Fiorentina and Napoli after a 1-0 midweek win over Empoli, with champions Juventus poised a further two points behind in what is shaping up to be a devilishly tight title race.
Palacio put an end to immediate speculation over his Inter future by penning a contract extension through until the end of next season on Friday.
The 33-year-old forward concedes that he did not expect to be in prime position to enter the 2016-17 campaign as a defending champion when Inter began their first full season of Mancini’s second spell in charge back in August.
“At the start of the season I wouldn’t have expected us to be top at this stage,” he told the club’s official website.
“However we’ve seen the team improve game by game. Now we have belief, we’re playing well, the group gives everything and we’re tough to play against.”
Inter striker Mauro Icardi is enjoying a rich vein of form having scored four times in the past three Serie A matches – including the winner at Empoli.
The Argentina striker is likely to have fond memories of the corresponding fixture last season, where he netted a hat-trick as Inter romped to a 7-0 triumph at San Siro.
Sassuolo gained a measure of revenge with a 3-1 home win in February and the presence of two of the Italian top-flight’s most miserly defences makes a repeat of such a freakish scoreline highly unlikely.
Inter’s resilience at the back is well documented and a key factor in their rise to the top of the division – conceding a league-lowest figure of 11 goals.
Sassuolo have struggled to fill the void left by Simone Zaza’s switch to Juventus in attack, but they have left opponents similarly frustrated at the other end in being breached 17 times over as many matches – Paolo Cannavaro and Federico Acerbi forming a formidable partnership at centre-back with Eusebio Di Francesco’s team riding high in sixth place.
Defender Danilo D’Ambrosio sustained a knock for Inter last time out, but he expects to be fit for Sunday’s match and accepts such potential setbacks as part of the game.
“You give some and you take some in football, the important thing is that you don’t intentionally go out to hurt people,” he told reporters. “In this case, they didn’t set out to injure me.”
Elsewhere, Mancini could freshen things up at left-back, with Alex Telles as an alternative for Yuto Nagatomo.
Key Opta stats:
– There have been 19 goals scored in the past four Serie A meetings between the sides, with 16 of those coming from Inter.
– The win at Empoli was Inter’s 12th of the season in Serie A and ninth by a 1-0 scoreline.
– Mauro Icardi has four Serie A goals against Sassuolo and has only scored more against Juventus (six).
– Inter lost their previous home match against Lazio. They last lost consecutive games at San Siro in May 2013.
– Sassuolo have only one win in six attempts on their travels (D2 L3).