Hot on the heels of the Premier League, it was announced on May 28 that Serie A would be resuming its season next month.

Italy's top flight is to get back underway from June 20, all being well, with the Coppa Italia semi-final second legs and final to be held during the week prior.

It means four of Europe's top-five leagues are committed to finishing the coronavirus-disrupted campaign, with only Ligue 1 having declared the season over.

Ahead of the return of the action, which includes a true title tussle, a fight for Europe and unease in the bottom half, we look at the story so far of 2019-20...

 

What is the state of play?

It's hardly a surprise that Juventus were top when the season was suspended in March, but this has by no means been a procession towards what would be a ninth consecutive Scudetto.

Simone Inzaghi's Lazio are just a point behind, while Inter, who have a game in hand, are a further eight points back.

Antonio Conte's Nerazzurri were beaten 2-0 by Juve in their final match before the season was halted, but while the title looks a touch beyond their reach, there would be little sense in writing them off entirely.

The race for Europe is similarly close. Free-scoring Atalanta are fourth but only three points above Roma, having played one game fewer, while only five points separate Napoli in sixth and Bologna in 10th. Milan, Hellas Verona and Parma are all in need of some improved form, though.

At the bottom, Brescia and SPAL look to be fighting a losing battle, but no side in the bottom half of the table could realistically declare themselves safe. Lecce are 18th, level on points with Genoa, but it's Torino who are enduring the worst form of all, losing six league games in a row to slide to within two points of the drop zone.

 

What have been the big controversies?

The return of football, for one.

There has been plenty of uncertainty around whether or not Italy, one of the world's hardest-hit countries by the pandemic, would sanction the resumption of the league. Indeed, Brescia owner Massimo Cellino has been outspoken against the idea from the start and branded the decision to declare a return date "crazy".

There is also concern around kick-off times as we move into the Italian summer. Umberto Calcagno, the vice-president of the Italian Footballers' Association, told La Repubblica there was "no way" the organisation would support matches taking place at 16:30 local time in June and July, when average temperatures exceed 30 degrees Celcius.

Even before the league was suspended, confusion reigned. When Parma were due to face SPAL in early March, players were sent back to the dressing rooms minutes before kick-off after sports minister Vincenzo Spadafora recommended all matches be stopped. The game eventually went ahead, 75 minutes late, with SPAL winning 1-0 in front of empty stands.

Juve might be top of the table, but things haven't been going swimmingly for Maurizio Sarri this season, either. The Bianconeri have often produced rather turgid displays and relied on individual brilliance from the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo to see them through, and they only won four of their final eight games in all competitions before the enforced break.

Ronaldo's frustrations have boiled over at times. There have been suggestions of discord between the head coach and the 34-year-old, who was angry at being substituted last November and was caught on camera telling Paulo Dybala "We're left alone out there" at half-time of their Champions League last-16 first-leg loss to Lyon.

 

Who had momentum before everything stopped?

Juve's results have been sufficient to keep them top and the convincing 2-0 defeat of Inter on March 8 was a real statement of intent, but Lazio, unbeaten since September in the league, are the real form team.

Led by 27-goal man Ciro Immobile, their run of 16 wins from their past 18 games has come in stark contrast to city rivals Roma, who have lost five of their past nine in Serie A to lose ground on Atalanta in the Champions League race. As for Milan, some bright January form tailed off in February and their season is in danger of petering out, although they are level at 1-1 with Juve after the first leg of the Coppa semi-final.

Lecce's improved form has left SPAL and Brescia looking forlorn at the bottom, but Torino should be particularly concerned - their last points came on January 12.

 

Which clubs have had it toughest during the COVID-19 months?

Although the most high-profile confirmed coronavirus cases came from Juve, where Dybala, Blaise Matuidi and Daniele Rugani were infected, other clubs have had higher figures.

Fiorentina returned six positive tests this month, while Patrick Cutrone, German Pezzella and Dusan Vlahovic were all confirmed as having contracted the virus in March.

There were also confirmed positive tests at Sampdoria, one at Atalanta and one at Torino, while Milan director Paolo Maldini and son Daniel both had the virus.

All clubs have, of course, been hugely impacted by the loss of earnings during the suspended season.

Italian Football Federation (FIGC) president Gabriele Gravina said to Riparte l'Italia this week that "more than €500million has already been lost to the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown".

Serie A has been given the green light to resume on June 20 following a three-month hiatus.

Italy's top flight was suspended in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the country's sports minister announced on Thursday the league - and the Coppa Italia - will restart next month.

Juventus are one point clear of Lazio as they chase down a ninth successive Scudetto, while Inter are nine points adrift of top spot with a game in hand to play.

The reigning champions' first league game back is scheduled to be away to Bologna, a week after they take on Milan in the second leg of their Coppa Italia semi-final.

Below is the full list of Serie A games still to be played, including four fixtures carried over from earlier in the season.

 

Matchday 25

Inter v Sampdoria
Hellas Verona v Cagliari
Torino v Parma
Atalanta v Sassuolo

Matchday 27

Atalanta v Lazio
Bologna v Juventus
Fiorentina v Brescia
Genoa v Parma
Hellas Verona v Napoli
Inter v Sassuolo
Lecce v Milan
Roma v Sampdoria
SPAL v Cagliari
Torino v Udinese

Matchday 28

Brescia v Genoa
Cagliari v Torino
Juventus v Lecce
Lazio v Fiorentina
Milan v Roma
Napoli v SPAL
Parma v Inter
Sampdoria v Bologna
Sassuolo v Hellas Verona
Udinese v Atalanta

Matchday 29

Atalanta v Napoli
Bologna v Cagliari
Fiorentina v Sassuolo
Genoa v Juventus
Hellas Verona v Parma
Inter v Brescia
Lecce v Sampdoria
Roma v Udinese
SPAL v Milan
Torino v Lazio

Matchday 30

Brescia v Hellas Verona
Cagliari v Atalanta
Inter v Bologna
Juventus v Torino
Lazio v Milan
Napoli v Roma
Parma v Fiorentina
Sampdoria v SPAL
Sassuolo v Lecce
Udinese v Genoa

Matchday 31

Atalanta v Sampdoria
Bologna v Sassuolo
Fiorentina v Cagliari
Genoa v Napoli
Hellas Verona v Inter
Lecce v Lazio
Milan v Juventus
Roma v Parma
SPAL v Udinese
Torino v Brescia

Matchday 32

Brescia v Roma
Cagliari v Lecce
Fiorentina v Hellas Verona
Genoa v SPAL
Inter v Torino
Juventus v Atalanta
Lazio v Sassuolo
Napoli v Milan
Parma v Bologna
Udinese v Sampdoria

Matchday 33

Atalanta v Brescia
Bologna v Napoli
Lecce v Fiorentina
Milan v Parma
Roma v Hellas Verona
Sampdoria v Cagliari
Sassuolo v Juventus
SPAL v Inter
Torino v Genoa
Udinese v Lazio

Matchday 34

Brescia v SPAL
Cagliari v Sassuolo
Fiorentina v Torino
Genoa v Lecce
Hellas Verona v Atalanta
Juventus v Lazio
Milan v Bologna
Napoli v Udinese
Parma v Sampdoria
Roma v Inter

Matchday 35

Atalanta v Bologna
Inter v Fiorentina
Lazio v Cagliari
Lecce v Brescia
Parma v Napoli
Sampdoria v Genoa
Sassuolo v Milan
SPAL v Roma
Torino v Hellas Verona
Udinese v Juventus

Matchday 36

Bologna v Lecce
Brescia v Parma
Cagliari v Udinese
Genoa v Inter
Hellas Verona v Lazio
Juventus v Sampdoria
Milan v Atalanta
Napoli v Sassuolo
Roma v Fiorentina
SPAL v Torino

Matchday 37

Cagliari v Juventus
Fiorentina v Bologna
Hellas Verona v SPAL
Inter v Napoli
Lazio v Brescia
Parma v Atalanta
Sampdoria v Milan
Sassuolo v Genoa
Torino v Roma
Udinese v Lecce

Matchday 38

Atalanta v Inter
Bologna v Torino
Brescia v Sampdoria
Genoa v Hellas Verona
Juventus v Roma
Lecce v Parma
Milan v Cagliari
Napoli v Lazio
Sassuolo v Udinese
SPAL v Fiorentina

Serie A is the latest of Europe's top leagues to announce a firm date for the return of the 2019-20 season.

Italy's top flight, suspended in March amid the coronavirus crisis, is set to get back underway on June 20.

Debate has raged in the past three months over whether the season should resume or be ended early, as has been done in France, but the Stats Perform AI team have crunched the numbers behind the scenes during the hiatus.

With all 20 teams having either 12 or 13 league matches still to play, their goal was to simulate how the rest of the season would pan out if the games were played now to produce a predicted 2019-20 table.

 

The statistical model estimates the probability of each match outcome – either a win, draw or loss – based on each team's attacking and defensive quality.

Those ratings are allocated based on four years' worth of comprehensive historic data points and results, with more weighting given to recent matches to account for improvements or declines in form and performance trends.

The AI simulation takes into account the quality of the opposition that a team scores or concedes goals against and rewards them accordingly.

All that data is used to simulate upcoming matches using goal predictions from the Poisson distribution – a detailed mathematical model – with the two teams' attacking and defending ratings used as inputs.

The outcome of the season is then simulated on 10,000 different occasions in order to generate the most accurate possible percentage chance of each team finishing in their ultimate league position.

Without further ado, let's have a good look at the results of the simulation with the predicted final league table.

 

JUVENTUS ARE CHAMPIONS... AGAIN

The results in our model see Juventus retain the Scudetto, accumulating 87 points.

Undoubtedly the story of the season in Italy has been the rise of Lazio, who have mounted a genuine title challenge and went into the forced hiatus just one point adrift of the summit.

With Ciro Immobile's goals and Luis Alberto's creativity in midfield, Simone Inzaghi's men have excelled and delighted neutrals with their entertaining football.

But, in our model, Juventus see them off in the title race, with Maurizio Sarri picking up where Massimiliano Allegri left off last term and guiding them to a ninth successive Serie A title.

However, their points haul is their worst since getting the same amount in 2014-15.

INTER SETTLE FOR THIRD

For much of the first half of the season, Inter looked destined to push Juve all the way in the title race.

Under Antonio Conte and with Romelu Lukaku leading the attack following his move from Manchester United, Inter appeared invigorated.

But their dipped after the turn of the year, leaving them nine points off the top when the season was put on hold, though they had a game in hand.

In the simulation they did not recover to overtake either of the top two, finishing third on 79 points. 

Nevertheless, this would still represent an improvement on last season, when they only amassed 69 points and finished fourth.

 

MILAN SCRAPE EUROPA LEAGUE PLACE

It has been a difficult few years for Milan, and this season has not been much better.

Stefano Pioli's appointment as coach late last year has seen them improve somewhat, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic's arrival also giving the team a boost.

But there remains a lot to fix with the Rossoneri, with the squad lacking in quality and the hierarchy at odds with each other.

The simulation has Milan finishing seventh and that would be enough to scrape a Europa League spot, as the other three teams left in the Coppa Italia semi-finals with them are all predicted to end the season higher than Pioli's men in Serie A, therefore qualifying for Europe already.

Roma and Napoli take fifth and sixth, with Atalanta rounding off the Champions League spots in our model thanks to a five-point advantage over the Giallorossi.

SAMPDORIA AVOID THE DROP, RIVALS GENOA NOT SO LUCKY

Only one of the current bottom three escapes relegation in the simulation, with Lecce preserving their top-flight status at the expense of Genoa.

Il Grifone and bitter rivals Sampdoria sit just above the drop zone in reality, but our predicted table sees Genoa drop to Serie B for the first time since 2006-07 – last season they only guaranteed their survival on the final day.

The model has Genoa eventually reaching 36 points, but Samp and Lecce manage to climb to 41, giving them both a healthy five-point cushion.

Brescia unsurprisingly prop up the predicted table, given they are nine points from safety in the real standings. Our AI team give Brescia a 1.8 per cent chance of avoiding relegation.

Also going down in our predicted table are SPAL, whose haul of 29 points - one more than Brescia in this experiment - leaves them well adrift of safety.

Four Serie A clubs could resume training on Monday after the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy relaxed its lockdown rules.

As well as reopening parks, gardens and cemeteries to the public, the region has also declared individual sport training sessions can start up again.

That could be good news for top-flight clubs Bologna, Parma, Sassuolo and SPAL, although central government could yet overrule the regional guidance.

In a statement issued on its website on Friday, the Emilia-Romagna local authority listed various ways in which it intended to lift coronavirus restrictions from May 4.

The statement included the following: "Green light also for the training in individual form of professional and non-professional athletes recognised by the Italian National Olympic Committee, by the Italian Paralympic Committee and by their respective federations, in compliance with the rules of social distancing and without any gatherings in closed-door structures, also for athletes of non-individual sports disciplines."

The move by regional governor Stefano Bonaccini represents a significant shift in a country that has been hit hard by the global pandemic.

Reports in Italy have said clubs could yet be barred from welcoming back their players on Monday, after the national government's regional affairs minister Stefano Boccia intervened to express opposition when the Calabria region this week announced it would be reopening bars and restaurants.

Prime minister Giuseppe Conte announced last weekend that professional sports teams could resume training on May 18.

Sports minister Vincenzo Spadafora has urged Serie A teams to focus their energy on next season, after France and the Netherlands became the first high-profile European leagues to abandon the 2019-20 campaign.

Spadafora said on Wednesday: "I always said that resuming training absolutely does not mean resuming the season."

The pause in the football calendar (except in Belarus, of course) gives players across Europe plenty of time to reflect on their efforts so far this season.

While some have a few things to work on when matches return, there are others for whom 2019-20 has been a showcase of the very best they have to offer.

In the latest piece in our series, we look at the best-performing forwards in the Bundesliga, LaLiga, Ligue 1, Premier League and Serie A.

Goals might be the most obvious (and fundamentally important) of metrics for these players, but the number of times the ball crosses that white line is not the only measure of their quality.

To that end, we have also examined seven other parameters: minutes-per-goal rate, shots on target, shooting accuracy, shot conversion rate, big chance conversion rate, dribbles completed and dribble success rate. And these are for those players to make at least 10 league appearances this season, to avoid any unfair imbalance in the results (we're looking at you, Florin Andone).

Without further ado, we present the most ruthless forwards elite-level football in Europe has to offer...

THE MOST RUTHLESS FORWARDS IN EUROPE'S TOP-FIVE LEAGUES 2019-20:

 

BUNDESLIGA:

Most goals scored: Robert Lewandowski (25)
Best minutes-per-goal rate (Min. five goals scored): Robert Lewandowski (81.7)
Most shots on target: Robert Lewandowski (55)
Best shooting accuracy (Min. 30 shots): Marcus Thuram (76.3 per cent)
Best shot conversion rate (Min. five goals scored): Paco Alcacer (35.7 per cent)
Best big chance conversion rate (Min. five big chances): Rouwen Hennings (71.4 per cent)
Most dribbles completed: Marcus Thuram (57)
Best dribbles success rate (Min. 10 completed): Lucas Alario (83.3 per cent)

LALIGA:

Most goals scored: Lionel Messi (19)
Best minutes-per-goal rate (Min. five goals scored): Lionel Messi (99.5)
Most shots on target: Lionel Messi (55)
Best shooting accuracy (Min. 30 shots): Lionel Messi (68.9 per cent)
Best shot conversion rate (Min. five goals scored): Lucas Perez (40.7 per cent)
Best big chance conversion rate (Min. five big chances): Charles (83.3 per cent)
Most dribbles completed: Lionel Messi (118)
Best dribbles success rate (Min. 10 completed): Pione Sisto (76.9 per cent)

LIGUE 1:

Most goals scored: Kylian Mbappe and Wissam Ben Yedder (18)
Best minutes-per-goal rate (Min. five goals scored): Kylian Mbappe (84.1)
Most shots on target: Kylian Mbappe (49)
Best shooting accuracy (Min. 30 shots): Kasper Dolberg (78.1 per cent)
Best shot conversion rate (Min. five goals scored): Mauro Icardi (37.5 per cent)
Best big chance conversion rate (Min. five big chances): Moussa Dembele (72.2 per cent)
Most dribbles completed: Neymar (90)
Best dribbles success rate (Min. 10 completed): Zaydou Youssouf (85.7 per cent)

PREMIER LEAGUE:

Most goals scored: Jamie Vardy (19)
Best minutes-per-goal rate (Min. five goals scored): Sergio Aguero (87.6)
Most shots on target: Mohamed Salah (43)
Best shooting accuracy (Min. 30 shots): Anthony Martial (68.2 per cent)
Best shot conversion rate (Min. five goals scored): Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (36.2 per cent)
Best big chance conversion rate (Min. five big chances): Harry Kane (70 per cent)
Most dribbles completed: Adama Traore (144)
Best dribbles success rate (Min. 10 completed): Billy Sharp (86.7 per cent)

SERIE A:

Most goals scored: Ciro Immobile (27)
Best minutes-per-goal rate (Min. five goals scored): Luis Muriel (70.2)
Most shots on target: Cristiano Ronaldo (53)
Best shooting accuracy (Min. 30 shots): Romelu Lukaku (65.5 per cent)
Best shot conversion rate (Min. five goals scored): Ante Rebic (42.9 per cent)
Best big chance conversion rate (Min. five big chances): Felipe Caicedo (85.7 per cent)
Most dribbles completed: Jeremie Boga (106)
Best dribbles success rate (Min. 10 completed): Sergio Floccari (72.2 per cent)

AND THE TOP EIGHT:

Most goals scored: Ciro Immobile (27)
Best minutes-per-goal rate (Min. five goals scored): Luis Muriel (70.2)
Most shots on target: Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski (55)
Best shooting accuracy (Min. 30 shots): Kasper Dolberg (78.1 per cent)
Best shot conversion rate (Min. five goals scored): Ante Rebic (42.9 per cent)
Best big chance conversion rate (Min. five big chances): Felipe Caicedo (85.7 per cent)
Most dribbles completed: Adama Traore (144)
Best dribbles success rate (Min. 10 completed): Billy Sharp (86.7 per cent)

Much of the world has been forced to a standstill due to the coronavirus pandemic, with most professional sport consequently on hold for the foreseeable future.

With the outbreak occurring at a particularly inopportune moment for top-level football in Europe, the situation has bred uncertainty across most leagues – including Italy's Serie A.

Once normality returns, should finishing the season be the priority, regardless of the impact it might have on future campaigns?

At the moment, concluding the 2019-20 campaign appears the most likely option. However, even with Euro 2020 pushed back by 12 months, clubs and leagues are still having to work to tight schedules, with UEFA requesting seasons finish by the end of June.

Other views have been aired, with Italian Footballers' Association (AIC) president Damiano Tommasi suggesting the 2019-20 season could already be over, but while the debate rages on during the hiatus, the Stats Perform AI team have crunched the numbers behind the scenes.

With all 20 teams having either 12 or 13 league matches still to play, their goal was to simulate how the rest of the season would pan out if the games were played now to produce a predicted 2019-20 table.

 

The statistical model estimates the probability of each match outcome – either a win, draw or loss – based on each team's attacking and defensive quality.

Those ratings are allocated based on four years' worth of comprehensive historic data points and results, with more weighting given to recent matches to account for improvements or declines in form and performance trends.

The AI simulation takes into account the quality of the opposition that a team scores or concedes goals against and rewards them accordingly.

All that data is used to simulate upcoming matches using goal predictions from the Poisson distribution – a detailed mathematical model – with the two teams' attacking and defending ratings used as inputs.

The outcome of the season is then simulated on 10,000 different occasions in order to generate the most accurate possible percentage chance of each team finishing in their ultimate league position.

Without further ado, let's have a good look at the results of the simulation with the predicted final league table.

 

JUVENTUS ARE CHAMPIONS... AGAIN

The results in our model see Juventus retain the Scudetto, accumulating 87 points.

Undoubtedly the story of the season in Italy has been the rise of Lazio, who have mounted a genuine title challenge and went into the forced hiatus just one point adrift of the summit.

With Ciro Immobile's goals and Luis Alberto's creativity in midfield, Simone Inzaghi's men have excelled and delighted neutrals with their entertaining football.

But, in our model, Juventus see them off in the title race, with Maurizio Sarri picking up where Massimiliano Allegri left off last term and guiding them to a ninth successive Serie A title.

However, their points haul is their worst since getting the same amount in 2014-15.

INTER SETTLE FOR THIRD

For much of the first half of the season, Inter looked destined to push Juve all the way in the title race.

Under Antonio Conte and with Romelu Lukaku leading the attack following his move from Manchester United, Inter appeared invigorated.

But their form since the turn of the year has dipped, leaving them nine points off the top when the season was put on hold, though they had a game in hand.

In the simulation they did not recover to overtake either of the top two, finishing third on 79 points. 

Nevertheless, this would still represent an improvement on last season, when they only amassed 69 points and finished fourth.

 

MILAN SCRAPE EUROPA LEAGUE PLACE

It has been a difficult few years for Milan, and this season has not been much better.

Stefano Pioli's appointment as coach late last year has seen them improve somewhat, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic's arrival also giving the team a boost.

But there remains a lot to fix with the Rossoneri, with the squad lacking in quality and the hierarchy at odds with each other.

The simulation has Milan finishing seventh and that would be enough to scrape a Europa League spot, as the other three teams left in the Coppa Italia semi-finals with them are all predicted to end the season higher than Pioli's men in Serie A, therefore qualifying for Europe already.

Roma and Napoli take fifth and sixth, with Atalanta rounding off the Champions League spots in our model thanks to a five-point advantage over the Giallorossi.

SAMPDORIA AVOID THE DROP, RIVALS GENOA NOT SO LUCKY

Only one of the current bottom three escapes relegation in the simulation, with Lecce preserving their top-flight status at the expense of Genoa.

Il Grifone and bitter rivals Sampdoria sit just above the drop zone in reality, but our predicted table sees Genoa drop to Serie B for the first time since 2006-07 – last season they only guaranteed their survival on the final day.

The model has Genoa eventually reaching 36 points, but Samp and Lecce manage to climb to 41, giving them both a healthy five-point cushion.

Brescia unsurprisingly prop up the predicted table, given they are nine points from safety in the real standings. Our AI team give Brescia a 1.8 per cent chance of avoiding relegation.

Also going down in our predicted table are SPAL, whose haul of 29 points - one more than Brescia in this experiment - leaves them well adrift of safety.

Serie A's title race could be decided by a play-off as the ongoing coronavirus crisis threatens an early conclusion to the 2019-20 football season, the Italian Football Federation has confirmed.

Following a government decree issued on Monday, Italy is on lockdown and all public gatherings are banned until April 3.

This development also means all sporting events in that timeframe have been postponed, throwing Serie A – which had previously been due to continue behind closed doors – into doubt.

Should Serie A resume on April 4, teams will have between 12 and 14 matches to cram in before the end of May, while some sides also have European ties to contend with.

FIGC has a limited amount of time to work with too, given Euro 2020 is set to begin in Rome on June 12, meaning facilities will need to be handed over to UEFA well in advance.

Italy's governing body is considering its options, accepting Serie A could either: finish early; be decided by play-offs; or simply halted and the title would go to no one.

A statement on the FIGC website read: "With reference to the recovery of Serie A matches, taking into account that the other leagues [Serie B, Serie C et cetera] have no international deadlines and therefore a wider margin of programming, the federal president proposed to the Serie A league to take advantage of all the dates available until May 31.

"If the COVID-19 emergency does not allow the conclusion of the championships, president Gabriele Gravina has submitted to the attention of the leagues concerned some hypotheses on which to discuss in the meeting of the Federal Council on 23 March.

"Without any order of priority, a hypothesis could be the non-assignment of the title of Campione of Italy and consequent communication to UEFA of the teams that qualified for the European competitions [Champions League and Europa League]; another would be to refer to the rankings accrued up to the moment of interruption; third and last hypothesis, to play only the play-offs for the title of Campione d'Italia and the play-offs for relegation to Serie B."

As it stands, Juventus are top of Serie A with 63 points – one clear of Lazio. Brescia, SPAL and Lecce occupy the three relegation spots, with the latter tied on 25 points with 17th-placed Genoa.

As of Tuesday, Italy is the most-affected European nation, with 9,172 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Parma's game against SPAL proceeded on Sunday despite confusion before kick-off, when it appeared Serie A could be suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Players from both teams were in the tunnel at the Ennio Tardini but were ordered back into the changing rooms to await a final decision over whether the match would go ahead.

Kick-off was initially delayed by half an hour before being rescheduled for 13:45 local time (12:45 GMT), over an hour after the intended start time.

The incident came about as Italian authorities apparently considered whether all Serie A matches should be cancelled amid the ongoing spread of the virus in the country.

Speaking on Sunday, Italy's minister for sport Vincenzo Spadafora confirmed he was recommending an immediate halt to the top-flight season.

He said: "It makes no sense right now, as we ask citizens to make huge sacrifices to prevent the spread of the disease, to put at risk the health of players, referees, coaches and fans, who will surely gather together to watch the games, just to protect the interests that revolve around the sport.

"Other federations have wisely decided to suspend football for the next few days. I think it is the duty of the FIGC [the Italian Football Federation] president, Gabriele Gravina, to reflect again, without waiting for the first case of a Serie A player to be infected, before taking on this very serious responsibility."

Authorities had already ordered all sporting events to be played behind closed doors until at least the start of April to limit the risk of infection.

On Saturday, the Italian government locked down the northern region of Lombardy in an attempt to contain the proliferation of COVID-19, which has infected 5,883 people in the country and claimed 234 lives.

People face fines if they are caught entering or leaving the region unless they have a serious reason to do so. All public events, including weddings and funerals, have been banned.

Valencia's Champions League last-16 second leg at home to Atalanta is due to be played on Tuesday without fans present at Mestalla, while traditional pre-match media duties have been cancelled.

Speaking last week, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin insisted it is not the right time to consider "dark scenarios" such as postponing domestic and European competitions or the Euro 2020 finals this year.

"We are dealing with it and we are confident we can deal with it," Ceferin said. "You don't know how many big concerns we have: we have security concerns, political instability and one is also the virus.

"Let's try to be optimistic, not think about dark scenarios – there's time for that later."

Juventus versus Inter and Milan's match with Genoa have been scheduled for this Sunday, Serie A has confirmed.

Six games in Italy's top flight were postponed last weekend due to the ongoing spread of the coronavirus in the country.

Along with the games featuring Juve, Inter, Milan and Genoa, matches between Parma and SPAL, Udinese and Fiorentina, and Sassuolo and Brescia were also called off.

Monday's meeting between Sampdoria and Hellas Verona was also cancelled.

Lega Serie A initially planned to move the matches to Wednesday, May 13, which forced the Coppa Italia final to be rescheduled for May 20.

However, it was confirmed on Friday that five of the matches are to take place on March 8, with Milan facing Genoa at 15:00 local time (14:00 GMT), while Juve against Inter is at 20:45 local time (19:45 GMT).

Sassuolo versus Brescia has been moved to Monday.

All the games are to be played behind closed doors following a government decree that said sporting events are to be played without fans present until April 3.

Champions Juve are second in the table, two points behind Lazio, who have played a game more.

Inter are six points behind Maurizio Sarri's side, although they have two games in hand on the leaders.

Juventus' derby d'Italia against Inter is among five Series A fixtures to be postponed this weekend due to ongoing fears over the spread of the coronavirus in Italy.

The matches were initially due to be played behind closed doors, as was the case with Inter's Europa League victory over Ludogorets at San Siro on Thursday.

But Lega Serie A revealed on Saturday that the clash in Turin, along with Milan v Genoa, Parma against SPAL and Sassuolo versus Brescia would not go ahead on Sunday.

Udinese's encounter with Fiorentina on Saturday has also been called off.

The matches will instead be played on May 13, with the Coppa Italia final pushed back a week to May 20.

Italy prime minister Giuseppe Conte revealed all of Serie A's Week 26 fixtures, including the blockbuster showdown between Juventus and Inter, could be postponed due to coronavirus fears.

The outbreak of coronavirus in Italy forced four top-flight matches to be postponed over the weekend, including Sunday's clash between Scudetto hopefuls Inter and Sampdoria.

Italy's move came as part of preventative measures against the spread of the coronavirus, officially named COVID-19 which originated in China, after two people died and dozens more reportedly tested positive.

Now, upcoming fixtures across Italy's leagues are in doubt, with Serie A leaders Juve scheduled to host Inter in Turin on March 1.

"I don't think that in just one week we'd be able to slow down the contagion so much that we could resume sporting events," Conte told Rai.

"We are constantly monitoring the situation and will evaluate. We'll see the evolution of the contagion and evaluate postponing all next week's matches."

Juve are a point clear atop the table following Saturday's 2-1 victory away at bottom side SPAL.

Cristiano Ronaldo marked his 1,000th career appearance with a goal, scoring in an 11th consecutive top-flight match – matching a feat previously achieved by Gabriel Batistuta and Fabio Quagliarella.

In-form Lazio were also in action on Saturday and edged Genoa 3-2 to extend their unbeaten streak to 20 games, while Inter are six points off the pace with a game in hand.

Aaron Ramsey felt right at home in a midfield three for Juventus as he scored what proved to be the winner against lowly SPAL.

In a game where Cristiano Ronaldo marked his 1,000th career appearance with the opening goal, it was Ramsey's strike that was decisive as SPAL went on to cut the deficit with a late penalty.

The Wales international confidently collected Paulo Dybala's incisive pass and lifted a deft finish over Etrit Berisha to score his first Serie A goal since September, moving Juve four points clear at the summit. 

Having often been employed in a more advanced role behind the strikers, Ramsey was pleased to settle into his rhythm as part of a midfield trio.

"Of course, this is my position, it's where I wanted to play when I came here, it's where I played my whole career," the former Arsenal player told Sky Sport Italia.

"I have the chance to make runs into the box and also score goals, so that is where I feel most comfortable."

Juve were not at their fluent best at Stadio Paolo Mazza on Saturday but got the job done against the division's rock-bottom side.

With a Champions League trip to Lyon and the visit of Inter for a crunch clash in the title race coming up next, Rasmey was pleased just to come away with the points.

"It's very big, it's always difficult to come to places like this," he said,

"It was important to stick at it, we got the three points. It's a big week for us and this is an excellent way to start."

 

Cristiano Ronaldo marked his 1,000th career appearance with a goal as Juventus beat rock-bottom SPAL 2-1 to move four points clear at the top of Serie A.

The Portugal superstar, rested for the 2-0 win over Brescia last time out, scored in an 11th consecutive Italian top-flight game, matching a feat previously achieved by Gabriel Batistuta and Fabio Quagliarella.

Maurzio Sarri's side, who were far from convincing, added a second through Aaron Ramsey before Andrea Petagna's penalty offered SPAL late, but ultimately fruitless, hope. 

The reigning champions will now watch on with interest when title rivals Lazio and Inter both play on Sunday. 

SPAL started brightly as Petagna tested Wojciech Szczesny inside the opening three minutes.

However, Ronaldo, who scored in the reverse fixture back in September, had a goal ruled out for offside at the other end, while the unmarked Juan Cuadrado blasted high and wide with an ugly first-time effort.

Juve began to build pressure and SPAL had to put their bodies on the line to thwart Cuadrado, with Etrit Berisha smothering the Colombian's deflected shot. 

Szczesny had a brief scare when Gabriel Strefezza's low strike threatened to nutmeg him, but the Pole recovered just in time.

After Paulo Dybala had struck the post with a curler, Ronaldo celebrated his milestone outing – his 1,000th for club and country – with a measured 39th-minute finish at the end of a move instigated by Ramsey, with Cuadrado providing the assist.

Giorgio Chiellini's first starting appearance since August came to an end just before the hour mark, and the ovation for the Juve stalwart had barely finished when Ramsey doubled his side's lead.

Picked out incisively by Dybala, Ramsey kept his cool to loft a fine finish over Berisha for his first league goal since September.

SPAL stuck at their task and halved the deficit when Simone MissirolI was felled in the box by Daniele Rugani, Petagna slotting in the spot-kick for a worthy consolation before Ronaldo's late free-kick hit the crossbar.

 

What does it mean?

Lazio and Inter will need to respond on Sunday, facing Genoa and Sampdoria respectively, or else Juve might begin to make themselves comfortable at the summit.

Ronaldo's class is permanent

The numbers behind Ronaldo's stellar career continue to defy belief, with this his 725th career goal. Having recently turned 35, we might be seeing the twilight years of an all-time great. Make the most of it.

Rugani a weak link

Rugani clumsily conceded the penalty from which SPAL pulled a goal back, but even aside from that the centre-back's display was scruffy, with a passing accuracy of 75.4 per cent, which dropped to 52 per cent in the opposing team’s half.

What's next?

The Champions League takes centre stage for Juve with Wednesday's game in Lyon, though next Sunday's visit of Inter in a crunch Serie A clash will certainly be on their radar. As for SPAL, they are off to Parma next weekend. 

Cristiano Ronaldo is set to make his 1,000th appearance for club and country when Juventus face SPAL in Serie A on Saturday.

The Portugal superstar was named in Maurizio Sarri's starting XI after being rested for the 2-0 win over Brescia last weekend.

Providing the 35-year-old comes through the warm-up unscathed, he will bring up his incredible landmark and seek to add to his tally of 724 goals. 

It will be the five-time Ballon d'Or winner's 73rd outing for Juve, with the bulk of his matches having come for Real Madrid (438).

Manchester United sit second on that list (292), with 31 of his games coming for Sporting CP, a further two for Sporting B and 164 for his country. 

Maurizio Sarri has vowed his Juventus team will not let their focus be affected by the prospect of next week's top-of-the-table clash with Inter.

Saturday sees Juventus travel to face SPAL, who sit at the bottom of Serie A with just four wins from 24 games, and coming away with three points is imperative for Sarri's side.

Juventus are locked in a three-way title battle with Inter and Lazio, and they also resume their Champions League mission next Wednesday with a trip to Lyon.

The Inter tussle follows four days later, so it would hardly be surprising if Juventus supporters were already looking beyond the SPAL game.

That approach is not for Sarri, though, as he explained in Friday's pre-match news conference, stating: "We're coming into the game ready, both mentally and physically in what is an important stage of the season.

"We're not worrying about players picking up suspensions ahead of Inter, we're just focusing on tomorrow's game.

"We're not thinking about the Scudetto race, just tomorrow's game in Ferrara because this is not yet a decisive period."

Sarri is continually exploring formation options and, quoted on the Juventus website, he added: "We're taking it game by game. A 4-3-3 depends on the players that we have available, on a defensive level not much changes.

"SPAL are different on a tactical level with [Luigi] Di Biagio at the helm. It will be a difficult game as they are playing to stay in the division."

Cristiano Ronaldo was rested by Juventus last weekend, when Sarri's men won 2-0 at home against Brescia, but can be expected to return.

Veteran defender Giorgio Chiellini returned from injury as a substitute in the Brescia game but according to Sarri is "just lacking the last step", an apparent indication it will be a while before he is ready to start a game.

If veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon plays, a 648th Serie A appearance would take him ahead of Milan great Paolo Maldini and into the outright lead in the most games played by anyone in Italy's top flight.

Sarri could include Federico Bernardeschi, who has returned to training after a short lay-off, but warned the Italy attacking midfielder is not yet ready to play a full 90 minutes.

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