Lazio can win Serie A's Scudetto race this season according to Christian Vieri, who lauded Simone Inzaghi's "amazing" team.

Spearheaded by highly rated head coach Inzaghi, talisman Ciro Immobile and star midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Lazio are once again challenging in 2020-21.

Lazio can move to within six points of top spot with victory over second-placed Inter on Sunday as they prepare for a blockbuster Champions League last-16 tie against holders Bayern Munich.

Inzaghi has renewed Lazio's fortunes since taking charge in 2016, guiding the capital club to Coppa Italia (2019) and Supercoppa Italiana (2017 and 2019) success. The Biancocelesti had not celebrated silverware since 2013.

Ahead of the Inter showdown, Lazio have found the net in each of their past 17 Serie A games – they last went on a longer streak in October 1994 (18).

Lazio have also gained the most Serie A points in 2021 (19). They are the only unbeaten side (W6 D1) – having also conceded the fewest goals (four, level with Genoa) since the turn of the year.

Vieri spent a year with Lazio in 1998-99 – scoring 14 goals in 28 appearances under Sven-Goran Eriksson as the club won the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup and Supercoppa Italiana alongside Alessandro Nesta, Pavel Nedved, Marcelo Salas, Sinisa Mihajlovic and Dejan Stankovic before a then-record move to Inter – and he hailed the work of Inzaghi.

"He has been there for four years. You can't change coach every year," ex-Italy striker Vieri told Stats Perform News. "Coaches need time. All the teams that are changing every year aren't doing well.

"Lazio are doing amazing. They have an amazing director – [Igli] Tare, fantastic. They have big players at Lazio.

"Lazio are a fantastic team. They played amazing football. In the Champions League and qualified very easy.

"Lazio are there to win everything. Lazio can win the Scudetto, you never know. Let's see what happens in the Champions League. Anything can happen, but they're doing amazing."

Lazio have not won the Scudetto since 1999-2000 – Inzaghi was part of that triumphant team as a player – but threatened to end their drought last season.

They were only a point adrift of Juventus when the league was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic in March last year.

But when the 2019-20 campaign resumed, Lazio stumbled and eventually finished third – four points behind Juve as the Turin powerhouse claimed a ninth consecutive Serie A crown.

"Everyone stopped playing, not only Lazio. The thing is, when you play and you don't need to win the Scudetto, you play with no pressure," the 47-year-old Vieri explained.

"When they say to you, there's 8-10 games to go and we have to win all eight, and tomorrow we have to win, it changes. You stop sleeping. You're nervous because you have to win.

"One thing is winning the game and no one says anything – you're second or third but no one expects you to win. But when they say there's five games to go and you have to win all five, that changes everything.

"When they started again after COVID-19, they had to win the last six or seven games and didn't do that. Juventus are used to the pressure. That's how it is."

If reports are to be believed, Lionel Messi will leave Barcelona at the end of the season.

However, his next destination remains a mystery.

The United States, though, could be next on the list for the record six-time Ballon d'Or winner.

 

TOP STORY – MIAMI MOVE ON THE CARDS FOR MESSI?

Lionel Messi could be keen on joining David Beckham's Inter Miami in MLS, claims Sport.

Messi, whose contract is set to expire, is tipped to leave Barcelona at the end of the season amid strong links to Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain and Premier League giants Manchester City.

But the six-time Ballon d'Or winner could be lured to the United States, where Beckham co-owns Inter Miami.

 

ROUND-UP

- According to The Sun, Manchester United are battling Barca and Real Madrid to sign Sevilla centre-back Jules Kounde. United are reportedly determined to bolster their defence and Kounde has emerged as a key target.

Liverpool have made Torino defender Bremer their top transfer target at the end of the season, reports the Mirror. Despite the January arrivals of Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies, Liverpool still want to strengthen their defence.

- Spanish journalist Siro Lopez says Sergio Ramos has made his decision to leave Madrid. It comes as the likes of United, PSG, Juventus and Chelsea eye the superstar Madrid captain on a free transfer.

Madrid are interested in Real Betis midfielder Nabil Fekir, reports Estadio Deportivo. Inter, Valencia, Atletico Madrid and Napoli are also believed to be eyeing the Frenchman.

Milan boss Stefano Pioli acknowledged "nothing worked" as his side slumped to their first Serie A away defeat since December 2019 against Spezia on Saturday.

The Rossoneri were dismal at Stadio Alberto Picco and failed to register a single attempt on target in a league game for the first time since August 2019 as goals from Giulio Maggiore and Simone Bastoni sealed a famous 2-0 triumph for the hosts. 

It marked the first time Milan had lost a top-flight game to a newly-promoted side since they were defeated by Benevento in April 2018. 

The result means Inter – who Milan face next weekend – can leapfrog their rivals at the league summit if they overcome Lazio on Sunday.

Milan have now lost three times in the league this season and Pioli said this was the first reverse that was deserved. 

"It will be a valuable lesson for all of us; we realise that if we don't perform at a certain level, we will be embarrassed like this," he told DAZN.

"Spezia won deservedly. This is our first deserved defeat of the season as we did not have enough quality or intensity and our opponents quite rightly took advantage.

"We are not a team capable of really winning ugly. We always try to focus on passing, intensity and tempo, so if we lack those elements, we are not as effective.

"We struggled throughout the game, nothing worked, including my choices and the performances of the players. Obviously, this isn't what Milan are like, so we need to prove that from next week.

"Perhaps we weren't sharp enough to react to the difficulties that Spezia provided. We did expect them to be aggressive and had prepared counter-measures, but they didn't work and we made mistakes, so nothing went right.

"If we don't move the ball around quickly enough, we allow our opponents to get back into shape and become predictable. Nothing worked this evening, on the ball or off it."

Milan face Red Star Belgrade in the first leg of their Europa League round-of-32 tie on Thursday and Pioli is expecting a much improved performance from his side.

"We're well aware of how negative this performance was, just as we're well aware of the difficulty of the games coming up and well aware of what Milan are capable of," he added.

"Anyone who saw us in training this week would not have expected this performance, and yet it happened. It was an off night, we need to get back on track.

"This was a bad performance, it's only right we leave the field with our heads down, but from tomorrow we get back on our feet."

With this shock victory, Spezia have now picked up more Serie A points against sides currently in the top half of the table (13) than those they have earned against teams in the bottom half (11).

Juventus head coach Andrea Pirlo questioned the "dubious" penalty awarded to Napoli and claimed his side are treated differently to other Serie A clubs.

Lorenzo Insigne scored the only goal of the game from the penalty spot after Giorgio Chiellini caught Amir Rrahmani in the face with a flailing arm.

That was one of only two shots on target Napoli managed in Saturday's 1-0 win at Estadio Diego Armando Maradona, compared to six for Juve - five of those in the second half.

And Pirlo, who saw Juve lose for the second time in five league matches to drop more points in the Scudetto race, felt his side were hard done by.

"They barely had a shot on goal and we lost through a dubious decision," he told Sky Sport Italia. "We played a good game but did not get the result we deserved.

"We played the ball around but not quickly enough, allowing Napoli to get back. We created more chances in the second half but did not find the goal."

Asked to elaborate on why he considered the 31st-minute penalty to be dubious, Pirlo said: "If you give a penalty for that then any contact in the box is punishable.

"If that had been given for us there would have been a lot of controversy and complaints, though I don't know if we would have been given a penalty in a situation like this."

Juventus have had five penalties in Serie A this season, putting them level with Roma and Sassuolo and behind only Milan, who have had an incredible 14.

Alex Meret, a late addition to Napoli's starting line-up after David Ospina sustained an injury in the warm-up, made six saves to frustrate Juve in front of goal.

Cristiano Ronaldo had four on-target shots kept out, while Alvaro Morata had a goal disallowed for an infringement by Chiellini - making his 400th Serie A outing - in the build-up.

But rather than blame his attackers for firing a blank, Pirlo instead credited Meret for standing firm between the sticks.

"My players played the game they had to," he said. "It is normal that playing so many games close together means a loss of sharpness.

"But both those who started and came on from the bench had an excellent game. The only thing lacking in the end was a goal.

"There's no guarantee the team that scores the most goals then wins the Scudetto. 

"We create plenty of chances and the Napoli goalkeeper was man of the match, so I can't complain about my strikers today."

Napoli's victory was their first in four matches and eases the pressure on boss Gennaro Gattuso, who was reportedly set to be sacked had his side lost again on Saturday.

However, Gattuso - a former team-mate of Pirlo's for club and country - insisted he never doubted the backing of his players and staff.

"We showed great heart and determination," he said. "Juve deserved something more, but my team was under pressure and fought hard to keep the clean sheet.

"I never had doubts on this squad, otherwise I would've packed up my things and gone home. 

"You can't get anywhere without the faith of the players. I always felt they were ready to do what I asked and that’s what matters."

Spezia registered their first ever win over Serie A leaders Milan as Giulio Maggiore and Simone Bastoni sealed a famous 2-0 triumph at Stadio Alberto Picco on Saturday. 

Milan fell behind 11 minutes into the second half when captain Maggiore opened his league account for the season from close range before Bastoni added a sumptuous second after 67 minutes. 

Stefano Pioli's side failed to register a single attempt on target as they slipped to their first Serie A away defeat since Atalanta beat them in December 2019. 

The result means Inter – who Milan face next Sunday – can leapfrog their rivals at the league summit if they overcome Lazio on Sunday.

Milan started sluggishly and would have fallen behind after 13 minutes had Gianluigi Donnarumma not superbly pawed over Riccardo Saponara's powerful close-range strike. 

Theo Hernandez and Alessio Romagnoli both headed wide before the half-hour mark as Milan belatedly woke from their slumber, although Pioli's side were unable to test Spezia goalkeeper Ivan Provedel before the interval – the first time they had failed to register a shot on target in the first half of an away game since September 2019. 

Spezia deservedly went ahead in the 56th minute when Maggiore slotted into an empty net after Romagnoli's last-ditch tackle on Matteo Ricci had diverted the ball into his path. 

A shellshocked Milan fell further behind 11 minutes later when Bastoni whipped home a glorious stike from 18 yards after Nahuel Estevez had rolled a free-kick back into his stride. 

Milan poured forward late on, but Spezia held on to record what is comfortably the most impressive win in their debut Serie A campaign.

 

Lorenzo Insigne scored his 100th goal for Napoli to earn his side a 1-0 win over Juventus in Saturday's Serie A clash, easing some of the growing pressure on boss Gennaro Gattuso.

Juve had won their last three top-flight games by the same 2-0 scoreline but their title prospects took another dent with defeat to a spirited Napoli side at Estadio Diego Armando Maradona.

Giorgio Chiellini marked his landmark 400th Serie A appearance by giving away a penalty that was put away by Insigne for what proved to be the only goal of the contest.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Alvaro Morata went close to equalising but the visitors, who beat Napoli 2-0 in last month's Supercoppa Italiana, could not find a way through.

Napoli were already without a number of key men and lost first-choice goalkeeper David Ospina to injury in the warm-up, meaning a late call-up to the side for Alex Meret.

The hosts were fortunate to see Federico Bernardeschi balloon a promising chance into the stands but they took the lead 31 minutes in through Insigne's powerful penalty.

Chiellini jumped with his arm and caught Amir Rrahmani in the face, which VAR adjudged was worthy of a spot-kick, and Insigne did not waste the chance to bring up his century.

Juve, who had not conceded in their previous three Serie A games, should have been level early in the second half but Ronaldo fired straight at Meret from close range.

Meret was also equal to Federico Chiesa's drive and Morata had a goal ruled out following another Chiellini foul on Rrahmani in the build-up as Juve continued to press.

A final chance fell Morata's way late on but he could not get the better of inspired Napoli keeper Meret, who produced a fine save with his legs to help his side to a huge win.
 

Antonio Conte has apologised for his actions during Inter's Coppa Italia exit to Juventus, saying he should have "reacted differently" after he was "insulted".

The Inter coach, previously in charge in Turin, aimed an insulting gesture at Juve chairman Andrea Agnelli as the pair traded comments at the Allianz Stadium.

The Bianconeri earned a goalless draw to advance to the final 2-1 on aggregate, but Conte was apologetic when revisiting the incident ahead of Inter's Serie A meeting with Lazio on Sunday.

However, the former Italy boss, who said after the game Juve "need more sportsmanship and respect", suggested he was insulted first.

Conte said: "I want to only talk about football during the press conference, so I will say this before we begin: I am here to apologise.

"I reacted in the wrong way to being insulted. I could have reacted differently and that would have been more positive.

"I am sorry and I will learn from this for future reference. The insults and provocation should not be an excuse, because I still shouldn't have responded like that.

"Everyone saw what happened; that is important to me.

"However, we as coaches, players and presidents are meant to set an example and therefore I should have reacted to insults and provocation in a different way - perhaps with a thumbs up or applause, to show I could hear what was being said, but it would've been a more positive response.

"Having said all that, now we should concentrate on the game. People want to talk about football, not gossip."

Real Madrid are considering a move for Kalidou Koulibaly, while Manchester United are targeting Jadon Sancho in a cut-price deal.

Amid uncertainty over Sergio Ramos' future at Madrid, the LaLiga giants continue to be linked with centre-backs.

They seemingly have plenty of options – and Napoli star Koulibaly is among them.

 

TOP STORY – REAL MADRID LIKE KOULIBALY

Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane likes Napoli defender Koulibaly, according to AS.

The report says Bayern Munich star David Alaba, who is out of contract at the end of the season, is still Madrid's first option.

With Ramos potentially leaving when his contract expires at campaign's end, AS also says Villarreal defender Pau Torres and Sevilla's Jules Kounde will be expensive.

ROUND-UP

- Manchester United opted not to sign Borussia Dortmund star Sancho ahead of 2020-21, and it could pay off. Eurosport reports United could land Sancho for just £50million (€57.1m) in the next transfer window. The Bundesliga club were demanding about £100m (€120m) for Sancho last year.

- Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder Florian Neuhaus is seemingly attracting plenty of interest. Kicker reports Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Liverpool, Manchester City and Juventus are interested in the three-time Germany international.

- Arsenal look set to strengthen ahead of next season. The Sun reports they are close to finalising a deal for 18-year-old Sporting CP forward Tiago Tomas for £20m (€22.8m).

- On loan at Real Betis from Barcelona, Emerson may not return to Camp Nou. CalcioMercato reports Milan are considering a move for the right-back.

- Former Milan and Chelsea forward Alexandre Pato will join Orlando City on a one-year deal, according to Fabrizio Romano and The Mane Land. Pato has been without a club since leaving Sao Paulo in August last year.

Stefano Pioli remains confident Milan can agree contract extensions to keep Hakan Calhanoglu and Gianluigi Donnarumma at the club. 

Both goalkeeper Donnarumma and midfielder Calhanoglu – two influential players in helping Milan sit top of Serie A – have expiring deals, along with talismanic striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. 

Technical director Paolo Maldini recently said Milan hope to reach terms to retain the trio beyond the current campaign, with head coach Pioli wanting them to stay as they build for the future.  

"The important thing is that both the club and the technical group have already had their say in a convincing way," Pioli said of contract negotiations ahead of Saturday's trip to Spezia.  

"We are happy to be able to continue the journey together and the boys are also very determined. 

"We all want to do well, the club is building something important and we are all focused on doing the best." 

Donnarumma has played in 20 of 21 league games under Pioli this season. The 21-year-old boasts a save percentage of 73.33 in Serie A – only Lazio's Pepe Reina (73.68) has managed better out of all the goalkeepers to feature at least 10 times in the competition. 

Calhanoglu, meanwhile, has a league-leading eight assists despite missing three games after testing positive for coronavirus. Indeed, since the beginning of December, he has set up seven goals in Serie A, the joint-most in the top five European Leagues, along with Kingsley Coman at Bayern Munich. 

The Turkey international will be back in the team to face Spezia as Milan aim to avoid a first league loss on the road since December 22, 2019. 

"Calhanoglu will start, either (Ante) Rebic or (Rafael) Leao will play on the left," Pioli said on Friday. "We will see what will happen – we want to get to the end of the season without regrets.

"We have ample room for improvement, we must raise our level because expectations are now high."

Pioli received praise from Milan CEO Ivan Gazidis for his work this week, with the pair united in their aim to help the Rossoneri become a dominant force again, both domestically and in Europe.

"We are in tune and his statements have made me very happy, our relationship with time has grown," Pioli said of the comments made by Gazidis.

"With the club we are going in the same direction and we have only one goal, to bring Milan back up. There have never been divisions and we must continue like this."

Paul Pogba's agent Mino Raiola said he will work on the future of the Manchester United star in the "shadows" amid links to former club Juventus.

Pogba's future has been a subject of discussion since Raiola claimed his client's time at United was "over" in December, prompting speculation of a possible return to Serie A holders Juve or move to LaLiga champions Real Madrid.

The World Cup winner has started 15 of United's 23 Premier League matches during his fifth season since returning to Old Trafford from Juve in 2016.

Pogba's contract is set to expire in 2022 and United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has explained an "open dialogue" about a new deal for the Frenchman is ongoing.

But after stoking the speculation over Pogba's in the past, Raiola now wants to keep the 27-year-old's business behind closed doors.

"Pogba must also be left alone," Raiola told tuttomercatoweb.com

"When I speak people get nervous, he doesn't sleep at night, so I don't speak anymore.

"I will do what I have to do not in front of you, but in the shadows, as I always have."

Pogba has been in inspired form since the New Year, scoring a pair of crucial winning goals in away games against Burnley and Fulham in the Premier League.

However, Pogba limped off in the 39th minute of United's last outing against Everton with a thigh injury and has been ruled out for "a few weeks".

Leonardo Bonucci admitted an attention-grabbing exchange between Inter boss Antonio Conte and Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli was "bad" but stressed it was in keeping with the heat of battle.

Conte and Agnelli clashed on Tuesday during the second leg of the Coppa Italia semi-final in Turin, a match that ended 0-0 to see Juve prevail 2-1 on aggregate.

Footage appeared to show the ex-Juve boss making a gesture that was reportedly towards Agnelli, who could be heard on a pitch-side microphone making comments aimed at the touchline following the end of the game.

Speaking to RAI after the draw, Conte said Juventus should "tell the truth" over what unfolded, adding: "They should be more polite in my opinion. They need more sportsmanship and respect for those who work."

Juventus defender Bonucci understands that while those involved in top-level football must set an example to the audience watching on, it is not always easy to stay calm in such high-pressure situations.

"There is little to add, the images speak clearly," Bonucci said in an interview with Sky Sport Italia. "What happened is bad, but it is not up to me to judge why it happened or what had to be done.

"Obviously we must always be an example, but sometimes it is difficult. When you step onto the pitch the environmental situation does not make you think.

"In some moments, adrenaline and tension make you become something different than what you would like to be, episodes like this happen, amplified by the empty stage with the sideline microphones that can transmit a sneeze."

Juve had won the first leg 2-1 at San Siro, having previously lost 2-0 at the same venue in January when going up against the Nerazzurri in Serie A action.

Bonucci points to that league defeat as a turning point for the reigning champions of Italy, as Juventus have not lost in seven games since that setback. Their reward for progressing in the Coppa Italia is a final showdown with Atalanta, which takes place in May.

"It represents a small step towards another goal, which is to bring home the trophy. It will be difficult, because Atalanta have been one of the best Italian teams for several years, they have also shown it in Europe," the defender said.

"It will be an unprecedented and complicated final, but there will be the desire to take home the cup.

"For the group it is yet another confirmation that after the match in Milan with Inter something different has taken place in us as a team and as individuals and this bodes well."

Juve switch their focus back to Serie A this weekend, though Bonucci is an injury doubt for Saturday's game away at Napoli due to a muscle issue.

Midfielder Arthur also appears set to miss the fixture after the club revealed he has "the presence of a post-traumatic calcification at the level of the interosseous membrane" in his right leg. The Brazilian will be monitored on a daily basis, though it is unclear when he will return to action.

Romelu Lukaku would prove to be a "gigantic" signing for Manchester City, according to former Citizens star Elano.

Sergio Aguero has been a fringe player for City this season, with the 32-year-old struggling with multiple injury issues as well as coronavirus-enforced lay-offs.

Aguero is out of contract at the end of 2020-21 and talks are yet to begin over a new deal, while Gabriel Jesus has also struggled to solidify his place in Pep Guardiola's team in the Argentine striker's absence.

With Aguero making just five league appearances – only two of them starts – and failing to score or assist, Jesus has netted four times and teed up two more goals from 14 games, 10 of them starts.

Phil Foden, Ferran Torres, Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne, who is currently out injured, have all been deployed in a central attacking role this season by Guardiola, who is reportedly set to target a forward in the upcoming transfer window.

Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland is a name that has been mooted, though all of Europe's major clubs no doubt harbour an interest in the 20-year-old.

From 15 Bundesliga appearances this term, Haaland has scored 14 goals, second to only Eintracht Frankfurt's Andre Silva (17) and Bayern Munich star Robert Lewandowski (19) in Germany's top tier.

However, another name which has emerged in relation to City's transfer targets is former Manchester United, Chelsea and Everton striker Lukaku, who has enjoyed another strong season with Inter following a stellar maiden campaign in Italy.

The 27-year-old is a player whose style may not be an obvious fit with Guardiola's way of playing, yet Elano believes the Belgium international would be a supreme addition.

"When you play at a club at a high level, the competitiveness is huge. And if a guy like Lukaku is free, it's not only City who want him, many others do too," Elano, who became a cult hero during a two-year stint with City between 2007 and 2009, told Stats Perform News.

"The way that City play these days everybody wants to play for City don't they? It's an amazing way to play.

"Jesus has his place at City, but if a transfer like that really happens, it would be a gigantic reinforcement for the club and all three would have to fight for the opportunity. And City will have opportunities to compete in all competitions."

City are 10 points clear at the top of the Premier League as it stands, having won a 10th straight top-flight match on Sunday, when they demolished defending champions Liverpool 4-1 at Anfield.

Asked if he believes City, who also have a game in hand over their title rivals, will go on to reclaim the league crown they won consecutively in 2017-18 and 2018-19, Elano said: "They went through a tough time, which is normal.

"When you rise so fast, they won two Premier Leagues, if I am not wrong, they also won the FA Cup so… after that, they went through a turbulent moment because they didn't win, but now they are playing well again, which is normal when you have an amazing squad like that.

"The manager has a good base to work from and I believe City has all the potential to win the title again.

"I consider [Guardiola] the best alongside some others. Each coach has his own way to play. But the most beautiful way to play football I guess is the Guardiola way."

WHAT WOULD LUKAKU BRING TO CITY?

Having spent the majority of his senior career in England, Lukaku would have no trouble adapting, and though his United connections may at first seem to represent a stumbling block, the Belgian never really settled during his time at Old Trafford.

Nevertheless, he still netted 28 league goals across 66 appearances for United, converting 42.22 per cent of 45 big chances he had, while also creating 54 goalscoring opportunities.

In his time at Inter, Lukaku has far surpassed that total in Serie A, scoring 37 times, while adding another four Coppa Italia goals and 13 in European competitions.

Last August, Lukaku became the first player to score in nine successive UEFA Cup or Europa League games when he netted in a 2-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen. He went on to score a penalty and an own goal in Inter's defeat to Sevilla in the final.

His partnership with Lautaro Martinez helped Inter to a second-placed finish last season and they are now battling it out with rivals Milan and Juventus for this term's Scudetto.

Lukaku's big chance conversion rate has been upped to 54.72 per cent in Serie A, while he averages a goal every 121 minutes, and with the quantity of opportunities City create – they top the Premier League for that metric this season with 259, with their big chance total of 65 matched only by United – he would surely hit the ground running.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the "exception to all rules" and anything is possible regarding an extension to his Milan contract, says the club's CEO Ivan Gazidis.

Despite being 39, Ibrahimovic continues to dazzle in Serie A and has 14 goals in just 11 league appearances for the table-topping Rossoneri.

A brace in the weekend's 4-0 rout of Crotone saw Ibrahimovic surpass 500 career goals and led technical director Paolo Maldini to suggestion an extension to the veteran Swede's deal – which runs out at the end of the season – is in the works.

Gazidis struck a similar tone when speaking to Sky Sport about a potential renewal for Ibrahimovic, who some outlets have reported could be offered a two-year deal.

"Ibrahimovic is the exception to all rules, always, he's special," Gazidis said.

"He has incredible personal and physical qualities. Ibra changes the rules. Anything is possible [in terms of a renewal], this challenge is the most romantic of his career because he has a history with this club.

"He could retire tomorrow. He has already done everything. I think he feels this challenge in a special way. He can renew, why not?"

The futures of goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma and attacking midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu also remain unresolved, with both players out of contract at the end of the season.

Asked about the star duo, Gazidis added: "We will do everything possible to reach an agreement.

"We want them to stay, they are two important players for the club and great professionals.

"We will do everything possible, but the choice will also be theirs and we will respect it. I am confident that an agreement can be found."

Gazidis and Maldini endured a tumultuous time early in the former's tenure, largely due to the departure of Zvonimir Boban from the technical team and reported interest in hiring Ralf Rangnick to take over as head coach from Stefano Pioli.

A deal to bring the German to San Siro ultimately broke down and Pioli is overseeing a title charge for the Rossoneri.

Gazidis now says he and Maldini enjoy a strong relationship that he hopes will be a long one at the club.

"Initially we had different languages and cultures, now we are growing together and ours is a strong relationship," he said.

"Sometimes we disagree but it is normal.  Maldini represents the history of the club for me but this is not the reason why I chose Paolo, I chose him because I see something special in him.

"He is a man with values, modern, human and with a desire to learn. I hope he will stay here for a long time."

"I think I would've been the best batsman in the world if I played cricket."

Christian Vieri is regarded as one of the greatest strikers to have played football.

Once the most expensive player in the world, the former Italy international won titles with Juventus, Inter, Lazio and Torino, while he claimed numerous individual honours – the Pichichi Trophy and Serie A Footballer of the Year to go with his FIFA 100 selection and other awards.

But it could have been a lot different for the cricket-mad 47-year-old after growing up in Australia – a far cry from his birthplace in Bologna.

"My whole family is a soccer-team family," Vieri, who also played for Milan, recalled to Stats Perform News. "My father played, I played, my grandfather, my brother. So when my father at the end of his career in Bologna, they asked him if he wanted to go play in Sydney with Marconi. He said yes and the whole family moved there. He played for some time and coached there. We all went with him. 

"I think I was about four years old and I stayed 10 years there, till about 14. I grew up there. It was good. Growing up with the kids, for me it wasn't strange. Now, if you tell people, it's a bit strange that I grew up in Australia but when I was there it was normal – going to school, playing soccer, playing cricket, playing different sports. I was a big fan of cricket. Even if we were 13-14, we would go watch Australia play Test matches, ODI matches in Sydney. I'm a very big, big cricket fan."

"I just love playing," Vieri said. "I was probably playing more cricket than soccer at school. You know what we would do? The tennis ball, we would tape it up to make it go faster and swing. I think I would've been the best batsman in the world if I played cricket. I was an all-rounder. I was really good. 

"You know what happened now? Two months ago before the second coronavirus wave, I spoke to someone from the cricket association, I'm going to start playing in March, April. It's a small thing in Italy, in Milan there is a cricket team. I spoke with the Italian cricket captain. They said listen, when you want to play with us, just come. I said listen, one thing is playing with a tennis ball when you're 14, one thing is playing with professionals. I want to come three or four days, train with you guys and see how it is. 

"I just love the game. I watch all the West Indies' games – Viv Richard, Clive Lloyd, Joel Garner, all those guys. I would watch Australia but in those days, the Windies were too strong for everyone. I'm on YouTube a lot watching cricket. My wife always says 'what are you watching? what is this?', three hours a day watching games from 1984 and 1986, and she is going 'what is wrong with you, why aren't you normal?' I say to her, 'listen, I grew up there, these are the days I was there following cricket'. She takes the p*** out of me. Pakistan had Imran Khan, I know the players. England had Ian Botham. It was fun. 

"I love the game. Couple of months when it gets a bit warmer and we can start to go out a bit easier, I would like to go training with the Italian team, see how fast the ball really comes at you, with your pads and everything. I think it would be a good experience."

So, as Vieri prepares to dust off his pads and helmet in Italy, who would he compare to in the current era of cricket?

"I think Chris Gayle from West Indies. I'm a left-hander," he added. "When I used to play, I'm not a Test match guy, I want to smash the ball outside the stadium. I think I would've been good."

And if Vieri remained down under in Australia, rather than returning to Italy at the age of 14, would he have opted for cricket over a football career?

"Cricket, soccer or tennis," Vieri, who retired in 2009, responded. "I play paddle, I play tennis for 30 years. I like tennis too because it's an individual game – it only depends on you."

Vieri went on to make 49 appearances for his beloved Italy, scoring 23 goals (ninth on the all-time list) following an international career spanning eight years between 1997 and 2005.

He made two trips to the World Cup in 1998 and 2002 – his nine goals across the two major tournaments a joint national record alongside Paolo Rossi and Roberto Baggio, while he also featured at Euro 2004.

While Vieri joined forces with the likes of past greats Paolo Maldini, Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero, Filippo Inzaghi, Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta and Andrea Pirlo for the Azzurri, his younger brother Max followed a different path.

Max Vieri, who was part of Juve's youth team before going on to play for Napoli in a notable spell, opted to represent Australia.

A midfielder, Max earned six caps for the Socceroos, but Christian Vieri never considered wearing the green and gold.

"I had two dreams when I was in Sydney playing and I was only 12, 13, 14, so you're going to school playing soccer. That's why I left Australia when I was 14 – my two dreams were to play in Serie A and for the national team – the blue jersey," said Vieri. "I remember in 1982 when Italy won the World Cup – Paolo Rossi and all those big players – I had it stuck in my head that I wanted to become an Italian player. When I was 14, I started breaking my dad's head about going to play soccer in Italy.

"When I started playing for Marconi, I started left full-back and then after I while, I said to the coach 'put me up front' and that's it, I was scoring goals and that's how everything started. My brother wanted to play for Australia always and I just had my dream to play the World Cups with Italy."

"I think the Australian team has done well in the last 10-15 years World Cup-wise and qualifications," he added. "They've done good. Of course when I was there – the big sports were AFL, rugby league, cricket – football wasn't the main sport but I think it's getting bigger. The evolution of football around world is just so big now, so much money behind it. When I was there, we were playing soccer and it wasn't the main sport but the passion we have and the kids have, it was bigger than the other sports."

Vieri's choice to chase his dream in Italy proved a wise decision, winning the Scudetto with Juve in 1997 before joining Atletico Madrid after just one season in Turin.

An incredible return of 24 goals in as many LaLiga matches for Atletico, and 29 from 32 appearances across all competitions in 1997-98, led to head coach Radomir Antic famously saying: "Vieri dead is better than any other attacker alive".

"We had a good relationship. I won the goalscoring award. I was a bit crazy those days. I would go out a lot. He would always say don't go out too much, train," Vieri recalled. "He knew I wanted to go back to Italy after about seven, eight months. He said, 'where are you going? you are going to stay here, LaLiga is your competition. You stay here and you just train a little bit, you score 50 goals a year with a cigarette'. I said yeah but I wanna go back home. 

"I think it was the best experience in my life playing in the Spanish league. It's the best quality league. There is so much technique and the way all the teams play, they all play to win. A lot of ball possession. Those days, you had to be really good to play. I had an amazing season."

Like his time at Juve, Vieri's spell with Atletico was brief as he returned to Italy via Lazio in a €25million deal the following season.

After 14 goals in 28 appearances and a UEFA Cup Winners' Cup triumph in the Italian capital, Vieri became the most expensive player in the world when he reunited with former Juve boss Marcello Lippi at Inter, who splashed out €49m to partner the Italian with Brazilian great Ronaldo.

"The thing is that, if you play in Spain, Italy, England – they're the biggest competitions, so you can't block it out," Vieri said when asked about the pressures of being the world's most expensive player. "Automatically, from being normal to 100 times of pressure on you because 90billion Italian lire in those days, the player who cost more than anyone, every game you play you're judged… even more than before. 

"At Atletico, I was sold to Lazio – big scandal came out – then when I went to Inter for 90b [lire], the world went crazy. From Lazio, moving to Inter, going to play at San Siro, it's a heavy thing because San Siro – the biggest players in the world have played there, 85-90,000 people judging you all the time. They whistle if you don't play good. They've seen everyone. 

"When I went there, I said to myself, 'Bob, first game is at home, when I went to camp, in a month and a half, your first game is at home and whatever happens, you have to go score in that game. if you score in that game, you're gonna fly'. I trained a month and a half in camp, I wouldn't go out anywhere. First game, I scored three goals at home, 90,000 people went crazy. Took a lot of pressure off my shoulders that first game. Here they call me Mr. 90m guy, even today. It's a thing you're gonna call you that for the rest of your life."

Now, Vieri watches the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski, Mohamed Salah, Romelu Lukaku, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe bang in the goals across Europe. 

How would he fare in 2020-21?

"I think it's easier to score these days because there's less marking. Before, football, first thing was not to concede, in Italy league at least," Vieri said. "It was probably the hardest league in the world in those days. All the biggest players in the world were there. We started the competition where seven teams were trying to win the league, not one or two but seven big teams with big, big players. If we would shoot twice in 90 minutes, we were happy. Those two shots, we would score one goal, we had to score once. 

"Today, the game has changed. The defenders don't mark as much, they play. They're more like midfielders, you have to play with the ball at your feet – the whole team have to attack. Now you have 15 strikers who score more than 20 goals. It's fun to watch still but changed a lot."

Popular on social media and Italian television in his post-playing days, Vieri has ventured into coaching as he works to complete his UEFA A and B license alongside the likes of former team-mates Del Piero and De Rossi.

"All of us, the former players, when we talk about things, we only miss one thing – staying together and training... having fun. The everyday stuff. The dressing rooms, we had the craziest dressing rooms, people. Taking the p*** out of everyone 24/7. 

"I speak with all my ex-team-mates. It's just fun. Now, I'm doing the coaching course… We just laugh, we have fun. We are doing UEFA A and B together. The way we talk to each other, it's just like back in the days. With a lot of former team-mates, we play paddle ball here in Milan. When we can, we hang out."

"The first thing is you need a license to coach. It's very hard, it's not easy. When you're doing two courses together because the federations asked UEFA if just the top 10 players could do it, so we're doing it," added Vieri, when asked if he was eyeing a coaching career.

"We'll see what happens. If I have a nice project, anything can happen. 1,000 of doors will open like I always say."

Milan technical director Paolo Maldini suggested Zlatan Ibrahimovic is in line to extend his contract with the Serie A leaders.

Ibrahimovic has been a revelation since returning to Milan for a second spell in January last year, the evergreen 39-year-old spearheading the club's Scudetto charge this term.

The star forward passed 500 club goals in Milan's 4-0 Serie A rout of Crotone, increasing his tally to 501 with his sixth league brace of the season on Sunday.

Ibrahimovic is one of the two players, alongside Juventus superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, to have scored the most braces in the top five European leagues in 2020-21, while the former Sweden international has netted 14 Serie A goals in 11 appearances this season - 16 across all competitions.

Out of contract at season's end, Maldini was asked about Ibrahimovic's future as Milan also look to re-sign stars Gianluigi Donnarumma and Hakan Calhanoglu.

"We are one of the youngest teams in Europe and we need a leader like Ibrahimovic," Maldini told BeIN Sports.

"We tried to sign him in 2018 when he was playing for LA Galaxy.

"He's told us that the contract extension depends on his body, but if he carries on like this, I don't see why he shouldn't be continuing.

"We have three players with expiring contracts in 2022, we are working. There must be to parties happy to continue together, footballers are professional who only think about the pitch, we hope we are going to reach agreements soon."

Milan are two points clear of city rivals Inter atop the table as they prepare to visit Spezia on Saturday.

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