As an antipasto for the weekend's main course, the midweek round of games could hardly have worked out much better. Ever since the Serie A fixture list was drawn up in July, the 12th round of matches had always looked tasty but after last night's results it appears positively mouth-watering. Juventus and Roma go into their encounter on Saturday placed fifth and sixth in the table respectively, then on Sunday morning second-placed Lazio take on third-placed Napoli. Sunday evening's Milan derby will be a contest between first and fourth.
If it would have been easy to predict in July that the two Milan teams – with the league's two biggest wage bills – would be there or thereabouts, then few would have had them this way around. Inter, after five consecutive Serie A titles, drew away to Lecce last night and look as vulnerable as they have at any point since the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal. Milan, by contrast, sit alone on top of Serie A for the first time in two years after a 3-1 win over Palermo.
An impressionable Gazzetta dello Sport yelps that defeat at the weekend could be "fatal" for Inter's title chances, producing an "unbridgeable" six-point gap between them and their city rivals. If that is taking things too far then it is also clear that the Nerazzurri's fortunes have taken a sharp downward turn. In their last seven games, Rafael Benítez's side have collected 10 points. Over the same spell Milan have 18, Napoli and Roma 16 apiece, Juventus and Lazio 15.
Perhaps the more worrisome statistic for Benítez is the one that shows his team have scored just five times in that span, though such shyness before goal is in keeping with the rest of the division. Last night just two goals had been scored across nine games by half-time – a record low since Serie A went to three points for a win in 1994. Things perked up significantly during the second halves, but so far this season the Italian top flight is averaging a paltry 2.2 goals per game. "This goes some way to explaining [Italian teams'] sorry shows abroad," concedes Gazzetta.
Palermo have been among the teams to disappoint in Europe – they have three points from four Europa League group games – but it was they who left San Siro last night feeling short-changed after being denied what they felt were two clear penalties. If the first was debatable, Mauricio Pinilla going down rather too readily under pressure from Thiago Silva, then the second was blatant – Kevin-Prince Boateng thrusting out an arm to block Fabrizio Miccoli's free-kick.
Milan, who were correctly awarded one penalty – Zlatan Ibrahimovic converting for his 100th goal in Italian football after Massimo Ambrosini was fouled – could counter that they ought to have had another when Alexandre Pato was clipped by Ezequiel Muñoz inside the area. Not that Maurizio Zamparini saw things that way. So incensed was the Palermo owner that he stated after the match he would be selling his club.
"Tomorrow morning I will resign," he raged in a telephone interview. "I will sell Palermo and leave football for good. This is enough, I am tired of assisting with certain things. I have taken my decision. I want to distance myself as soon as possible from this football. Palermo is for sale from right now."
This was not, in his eyes, an isolated incident. "I thought things had changed, but it is still the same filth," he railed before making his point even more plain. "This has already happened on more than one occasion this season. If they had given us the penalties we deserved, we would be top of the table. In these first 11 games neither Milan, nor Inter, nor Juventus have had a penalty against them. Is this even possible? Nothing has really changed. I want to leave as soon as possible."
Zamparini is Serie A's most self-indulgent drama queen, but that is not necessarily to say he will go back on his word. Already this season he had been involved in a very public argument with the refereeing designator Marcello Nicchi and has been compiling a dossier of the refereeing injustices he feels his team have suffered since their 3-2 defeat to Brescia in the second game of the season.
Palermo's manager, Delio Rossi, was similarly unimpressed, lamenting that "there was not uniformity on the part of the referee", but his greater concern may have come from seeing Javier Pastore limp off after 52 minutes with a knee injury. After a week of reports that the club were preparing to insert a €70m (£60m) release clause into the playmaker's new contract, Pastore had struggled to make an impact against Milan – seeming to hurt his knee just 10 minutes in. Palermo will assess the extent of the injury today.
But if he had little impact on the game then that is also to the credit of an energetic three-man midfield composed of Boateng, Massimo Ambrosini and Mathieu Flamini, with Clarence Seedorf ahead of them in the trequartista role. The manager, Massimiliano Allegri, appears to have been stung by Gennaro Gattuso's criticisms of a team that does not run enough and for Flamini that is now two starts, and two wins, in four days. He had not started once in Milan's first nine fixtures.
Whether Allegri will stick with that line-up on Sunday night remains to be seen – Andrea Pirlo was unavailable through injury last night but could be fit for the weekend. Robinho, who scored the third with an unconvincing effort that Salvatore Sirigu couldn't quite claw out, may also be in line for a start after first Pato, then his replacement Pippo Inzaghi, went off hurt.
Either way Milan's injury concerns pale by comparison with those of Inter, who had to do without Júlio César, Maicon, Walter Samuel, MacDonald Mariga, Thiago Motta, Sulley Muntari and Wesley Sneijder – among others – last night. Early as it is in the season, Allegri may even feel under some pressure to ensure his team take advantage of Inter's weakest moment. The rest of us can just sit back and lick our lips at the weekend in prospect.
• Inter aren't the only ones with injury problems – Juventus' treatment room has a pretty hefty waiting list these days – and like Benítez's team the Bianconeri had to settle for a draw, after having taken the lead in their game away to Brescia. West Ham fans may not be so thrilled to see Alessandro Diamanti scoring goals like this now that he has left them.
• Genoa got the boost that changing managers often seems to provide, Davide Ballardini steering his new team to a 1-0 win over Bologna. Having immediately ditched his predecessor Gian Piero Gasperini's 3-4-3 in favour of a more conventional 4-4-2, Ballardini saw his team dominate throughout. Tougher tests await, though, than a Bologna team who had picked up just two points in five games away from home.
• Has Lazio's bubble burst? Maybe, but the real lesson of their 1-0 defeat to Cesena, sealed by a fantastic strike from Marco Parolo, is simply that they don't have a deep squad. For the first time all season Edy Reja attempted some squad rotation – resting Hernanes and Stefano Mauri (the latter had a minor muscular problem) – and quickly found out his back-ups aren't as good as the men they replaced. That will be an issue over the course of the season, but Lazio may not need to rotate as much as some others because of their absence from Europe.
• Has Roma's bubble been reformed? A 3-2 win over Fiorentina moved them to within two points of the Champions League places and, after four wins and a draw from their past five games, suddenly all that talk of crisis feels a long way off. Of course, it'll probably all be back if they lose again at the weekend.
• Sampdoria remain intent on having Antonio Cassano's contract cancelled, with their request to the league citing "insubordination, abuse, threats and open protest against company directives". Rumours of a possible move to Genoa are beginning to surface, and though the player himself has privately played down his interest in such a switch, it should not be ruled out. He is happy in the city and with a child on the way may prefer to keep his family settled, though his strong preference remains to stay at Samp.
Results: Brescia 1-1 Juventus, Cagliari 0-1 Napoli, Catania 1-0 Udinese, Cesena 1-0 Lazio, Chievo 0-0 Bari, Genoa 1-0 Bologna, Lecce 1-1 Inter, Milan 3-1 Palermo, Roma 3-2 Fiorentina