ROME - Juventus was somewhat of a surprise winner of the Italian league's symbolic winter title, and the team's supremacy will immediately be tested when it begins the second half of the season by hosting third-place Udinese on Saturday.
Juventus is unbeaten but holds only a one-point lead over defending champion AC Milan, with Udinese three points back and surging Inter Milan six points behind.
The winner of the winter title has gone on to win Serie A the past seven years, but the league hasn't been this competitive in years, and Juve hasn't really contended since before the 2006 Italian match-fixing scandal.
"The winter title has only symbolic value," Juventus coach Antonio Conte said. "Now we've got to be even better to repeat ourselves in the second half of the season. We need to be at 120 or 130 per cent."
However, Juventus has three key players questionable with injuries. Forward Mirko Vucinic has an inflamed right knee and attacking midfielders Claudio Marchisio and Simone Pepe each have swollen ankles.
If those players are absent, starting positions could open up for 37-year-old Juventus captain Alessandro Del Piero and midfielder Emanuele Giaccherini, who both scored in a 3-0 win over 10-man Roma on Tuesday that put the Turin team into the Italian Cup semifinals.
For Del Piero, who has seen limited playing time lately, it was his first goal of the season.
"Del Piero is always a solution for me, never a problem," Conte said.
Newly signed forward Marco Borriello is another option in attack.
For Udinese, everything revolves around 34-year-old captain Antonio Di Natale, who has led the league in scoring the past two seasons with a combined 57 goals and again tops the chart this season with 14, lying level with Milan forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
During their first meeting before the holiday break, Juventus played to a 0-0 draw at Udinese, handing the small northeastern club its only blemish of an otherwise perfect record at home.
"We're going to have to run, run and run some more if we want another positive result, because that's what they do a lot of and they're organized in every area," Di Natale said.
Udinese is also missing a few key players, with Kwadwo Asamoah playing for Ghana at the African Cup of Nations and fellow midfielder Giampiero Pinzi out with a calf injury. Mauricio Isla, another midfielder, is questionable with a left thigh problem.
Still, having never finished higher than third, Udinese is clinging to its title aspirations.
"Dreaming doesn't cost anything, but it's going to be very difficult," Di Natale said.
Also this weekend, Milan hosts Cagliari and Inter visits Lecce.
Milan is singing the praises of Ibrahimovic after the Sweden striker scored twice in a 3-0 win over Novara last weekend, although the Rossoneri still seem interested in signing Carlos Tevez from Manchester City before next week's transfer deadline.
Inter's eight-match winning streak in all competitions was snapped with a 2-0 Italian Cup loss to Napoli on Wednesday, although Claudio Ranieri's squad has still won seven straight in the league.
In other matches, it's: Catania vs. Parma; Fiorentina vs. Siena; Cesena vs. Atalanta; Genoa vs. Napoli; Palermo vs. Novara; Roma vs. Bologna; and Chievo Verona vs. Lazio.