Juventus face uphill battle as Serie A resumes

ROME: Serie A has become almost a formality for Juventus over the last decade but the Turin side are suddenly facing an uphill battle as they chase a tenth successive title this season.

Juve host Udinese as Serie A resumes on Sunday after a 10-day Christmas break which has given them plenty of time to reflect on a their dismal 3-0 home defeat by Fiorentina.

Leading scorer Cristiano Ronaldo spent part of that period in Dubai, a trip that raised eyebrows in Italy where ordinary citizens are under a Christmas and New Year lockdown and subject to severe travel restrictions.

In their first season under Andrea Pirlo -- a man with no previous coaching experience -- Juventus find themselves in sixth place with 24 points, 10 adrift of leaders AC Milan but with a game in hand.

Juve have become used to letting their rivals do the chasing in the last few seasons and the last time they were in a remotely similar situation was back in 2015-16 when they were seven points behind the leaders at the similar stage.

Pirlo has insisted from the outset that his team are "under construction" and the Fiorentina debacle came just as they appeared to be taking shape with a 3-0 win away to Barcelona in the Champions League and a 4-0 drubbing of Parma.

"I'm trying to put my ideas together, the players are understanding them, and we continue on this game plan started in September," said the bearded, moody-looking coach after the Fiorentina match. "We will try to improve it when we resume."

Midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur confessed that the players had approached the Fiorentina match in the wrong frame of mind.

"We are still in the title race, we know that," said the Uruguayan. "The last match showed that every challenge must be approached from the first minute with the right mentality. We still have to face our direct rivals."

Although midtable Udinese are no pushovers, the real battles begin afterwards as Juventus visit leaders AC Milan on Jan. 6, host fourth-placed Sassuolo four days after that and visit second-placed Inter Milan on Jan. 17.

Milan, who visit a Benevento side led by their former coach and striker Filippo Inzaghi, are still unbeaten with 34 points although their mounting toll of injuries -- including 39-year-old forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic -- finally appears to be catching up with them.

Antonio Conte's Inter Milan, who host lowly Crotone in another Sunday game, have cut their neighbours' lead to one point.

Having won their last seven league games, they are starting to look like favourites in what is turning out to be the most unpredictable title race for years.