A message to Maradona: 'Traitor' Icardi is a goal and assists machine

The Inter striker is detested by many within the game, as well as by some of his own club’s supporters, but his numbers this season cannot be ignored

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Diego Maradona is well qualified for his self-appointed role as football’s moral guardian. As someone who always kept out of trouble on and off the pitch, the legendary Argentine No.10 is perfectly entitled to judge Mauro Icardi for having the temerity to fall in love with Wanda Nara, the ex-wife of his former Sampdoria strike partner, Maxi Lopez.

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“Icardi is a traitor,” Maradona told Canale 5 earlier this week. “He can’t go to dinner with his team-mates and then get married to the wife of his friend. He’ll pay for what he did to Maxi.”

However, even Maradona acknowledges that Inter captain Icardi has the potential to become one of the most potent forwards in the world. “He will be a great player,” ‘El Diego’ conceded, before being unable to resist taking another shot at the 23-year-old. “But [former Argentina striker Gabriel] Batistuta is worth 10 Icardis.”

Icardi’s value is certainly more interesting than his values. Looking at Europe’s top leagues, only Alexis Sanchez has been directly involved in more league goals (24) than Icardi (23) this season – and the Inter skipper has actually played one game fewer (22) than the Arsenal ace.

Yet there is a reluctance among Europe’s elite to make a move for one of the continent’s most prolific forwards. Why? Because he loses friends as easily as he wins games. Indeed, it is not just Maradona who dislikes Icardi. Even some Inter supporters can’t stand him.

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The animosity stems from the September release of Icardi’s autobiography, ‘Sempre Avanti’ (‘Always Forward’), in which he claimed that after Inter’s defeat at Sassuolo in February 2015 he had tried to give his shirt to a young supporter only for one of the club’s ultras to allegedly intervene and fling the jersey back at him in disgust.
“This is when I start insulting him,” he wrote. “‘Piece of s***, you are acting all arrogant with a little kid to show off to the rest of the curva? Do you think you’re hard?’ In the locker room I am acclaimed as a hero because nobody had ever faced off that way with one of the fan leaders.”

To say that the ultras disputed Icardi’s version of events would be an understatement. At the next home game, they unfurled a banner which read, “You use a child to justify yourself and throw mud in our faces. You’re not a man. You’re not a captain. You’re only a vile piece of ***.”

In the end, a repentant Icardi held onto the captaincy – but will Inter hold on to him? The striker’s future remains uncertain. There is a question over whether Icardi is really worth the hassle and Goal understands that Inter’s ambitious new Chinese owners, Suning Holdings Group, are not only planning to strengthen their defence next season, with the acquisition of Kostas Manolas from Roma, but also their attack.

Icardi’s wife and agent, Wanda, has revealed that several Chinese Super League clubs are interested in his services, while there is mounting speculation that he could yet end up at Atletico Madrid – a move that has been mooted for some time.

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Indeed, Rojiblancos boss Diego Simeone is a known admirer of his fellow Argentine – but there is no reason why the long-time Inter target could not end up working with Icardi at Appiano Gentile. Certainly, the numbers suggest that Inter would be foolish to discard a 23-year-old who is evolving at a rapid rate into a more rounded centre-forward, as underlined by the fact that he has already equalled his best ever assists tally for an entire season – eight, from 2014-15.

Icardi has always been an excellent finisher, “an animal in the box” as Inter coach Stefano Pioli calls him, but he has been noticeably more involved outside the area this season. “I have worked with some great attackers, but Mauro’s stats are exceptional,” the trainer enthuses. “He does not just score, but also works incredibly hard.”

Even more endeavour is required, though, if he is to force his way back into the Argentina squad. Icardi made his international debut in a World Cup qualifier against Uruguay in 2013 but hasn’t featured since, with new coach Edgardo Bauza even having to deny reports that Lionel Messi was blocking Icardi’s inclusion due to his friendship with Lopez.

Despite Maradona’s insistence that Icardi should only be seventh-choice striker (even behind the 43-year-old Daniel] Bazan Vera!), Icardi deserves a recall. Certainly, it is difficult to understand why the two main protagonists in this weekend’s Derby d’Italia are not both in the Argentina squad.

As former Juventus and Inter striker Roberto Boninsenga said on Thursday, “Mauro Icardi is better than Gonzalo Higuain. Mauro will soon steal away Pipita’s place in the national team.”

Whether Icardi is better than Higuain is open to debate. The statistics above suggest that Icardi is not yet as clinical as his compatriot. However, Sunday’s Derby d’Italia offers the younger man another opportunity to prove himself a worthy rival for the No.9 shirt Higuain wore in Argentina’s most recent outing, a 3-0 win over Colombia in November.

Icardi was the clear victor when the two last went head to head, at San Siro in September, with the Masia graduate levelling the game with a towering header before creating Ivan Perisic’s winner with a sublime outside-of-the-foot cross.

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Of course, this was not in the least bit surprising, given Icardi had already scored six times in his previous seven games against Juve, for Samp and Inter. Maintaining his remarkable strike rate against the Bianconeri in Turin this weekend would not only heighten the interest of Europe’s elite in Icardi’s services but also intensify the calls for him to be recalled to the Argentina squad. Bauza is even expected to be in the crowd at Juventus Stadium on Sunday.

Whether Maradona likes it or not, it’s getting increasingly difficult to ignore Icardi.

Pioli: Inter can challenge for silverware again

The 51-year-old has guided the Nerazzurri to an impressive run of form since taking over and is confident they can end their trophy drought

Inter coach Stefano Pioli has tipped his side to challenge for silverware once again in the near future after overseeing a major upturn in their fortunes since taking over.
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The Italian was appointed as Frank de Boer’s successor on November 8 and since then Inter have only lost once in Serie A and they head into Sunday’s trip to Juventus fourth in the table.

Inter suffered from a lack of cohesion under De Boer and the Dutchman was accused of alienating some players, but Pioli has masterminded a great improvement and restored unity to the squad.

He is now looking to the future and is certain that their current set-up has the potential to bring Inter success.
“I think the quality is in the squad,” he told Mediaset Premium.

“But as well as those values that make us think of a good present, there are also club owners who want to make Inter great again in the future.

“I think we can challenge to win silverware again.”

Dybala can emulate fellow Argentine Messi and win Ballon d'Or – Allegri hails under-fire Juventus forward

The Juventus head coach has talked up his South American forward ahead of a Serie A showdown with Inter, with questions being asked of his form

Juventus head coach Massimiliano Allegri believes Paulo Dybala has the potential to be a Ballon d’Or winner following recent criticism of the forward’s form.

Argentina international Dybala was Juve’s top scorer on the way to the Scudetto last season, with 19 goals in 34 Serie A appearances.

Form and fitness woes have left him short of that level this time around and he caused a stir by refusing to shake Allegri’s hand after being substituted during the second half of last weekend’s 2-0 win at Sassuolo.

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Juventus host rivals Inter in the Derby d’Italia on Sunday, where Dybala is set to start with national team boss Edgardo Bauza looking on from the stands.

In an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport, Bauza labelled comparisons between the 23-year-old and a young Lionel Messi as unhelpful, but Allegri believes his player can one day reach the rarefied heights of the Barcelona superstar.

“Dybala was injured for two months but has played himself back into form and fitness,” he told a pre-match news conference.

.@OfficialAllegri: “@PauDybala_JR has played himself back into form and fitness. He has the quality to win the Ballon d’Or one day.” pic.twitter.com/x1KURwYvrJ
— JuventusFC (@juventusfcen) February 4, 2017

“As it’s his second year [at Juventus], people expect more from him. That’s the burden of being a great player.

“He has the quality to win the Ballon d’Or one day.”
Juve lost 2-1 in the reverse fixture at San Siro, one of the few high points of Frank de Boer’s brief Inter reign, but Allegri will not enter the contest against Stefano Pioli’s side with revenge in mind.

“Tomorrow is a big game, one that is wonderful for us and them to play in,” he said.

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“These are two squads who are capable of winning the Scudetto. Fortunately Inter had a rough start and we have the advantage in the table, but the potential of the sides is very similar.

“It will be a game at a very high level of technique and that is good for Italian football.

“Our last game with Inter was very strange, as we were distracted on the goals, but these points are worth the same as against Crotone, so we need to be ready and play the same way against any opponent.”

Midfielder Claudio Marchisio will be available once more for Juventus, but defender Andrea Barzagli is a doubt having missed training on Saturday through illness.

Icardi better than Higuain – Inter boss Pioli

Having won each of their last seven Serie A games, the Nerazzurri are looking to chip away at the nine point gap between them and Juventus on Sunday

Stefano Pioli says Inter striker Mauro Icardi is better than his Juventus counterpart Gonzalo Higuain, but insists his side must play as a team if they are to beat to Serie A champions on Sunday.
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After a stuttering start to the season under Frank de Boer, Pioli has brought the Nerazzurri back up to the top end of the table. The San Siro outfit now sit in fourth place, sitting nine points behind leaders Juve, having won each of their last seven league games, though Tuesday’s Coppa Italia loss to Lazio brought an end to a nine-game winning streak in all competitions.

Inter can chip away at that deficit on Sunday when the reigning champions host Pioli’s men. The coach believes his side have a more lethal attacker in the form of Icardi, who has scored as many goals as Higuain in Serie A this season – 15 – but has eight assists to his compatriot’s one, but maintains his side must be wary of their opponents.

When asked which of the two strikers is better, Pioli told Corriere dello Sport: “Icardi… We need to be effective, we have to be a team. I do not think there is one decisive aspect: when we play with intensity, pace and work for each other. If we do that we are a strong and competitive team.  

“We will have to approach the game with strength, conviction and effectiveness. Juventus are the team who score more in the first 10 minutes, we score more in the last 15. We’ll see what will happen.
“We have to be very careful about the details and distances, but we should be paying attention to the second balls, they may important to help us hurt them in attack.

“Juventus are a strong team, they have the mentality, the team and the coach. If there is a team that can make things difficult, it is Inter. They have certain qualities and we have ours. We will try to do well. 

“This meeting will be important in understanding the distance between the two teams. I think it will be a good challenge.”
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Pioli is confident in his knowledge of the opposition, having studied most teams during his time out of work before joining Inter and he is looking forward to the Derby d’Italia.

“I’m used to this very life, to know the strengths and weaknesses of this profession,” he added. “When I was at home I watched football and I traveled to follow the coaches that I like more. 

“I waited for the right situation and arrived. Inter have arrived at the right time and I had the opportunity to coach a great team with great fans. This is my big chance.”

Pioli confident Inter can shock Juventus

The two teams clash this weekend and the coach feels his in-form side can take all three points off the reigning Serie A champions

Stefano Pioli is confident Inter have what it takes to spring a surprise in Sunday’s trip to Juventus.
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The Nerazzurri have been in sublime form in recent months and have climbed to fourth place in Serie A following a seven-game winning run.

Inter beat Juventus 2-1 back in September and Pioli feels they have the capability to engineer another shock win against the league leaders at the weekend.

“Juventus are a great team but if anyone can cause them problems it is us. We will try to outdo them,” Pioli said at a media conference.
“The game is worth three points like any other, but we know how much it means beyond that. We have prepared well for it. The players have looked even more determined and focused the last few days. They know how important this game is.

“We must get our approach nailed. We will go out there and give it everything we have got to try and win. We must be compact and careful about every little detail.
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“It is important to maintain our balance. We need to perform as a team. When we play at a high tempo we can give anyone a game.  

“It will be a great game and we will be able to see if there is a difference between the two teams. A win would be a confidence boost for us, but the game will not decide anything for either side.”

Not signing Dybala is my biggest regret at Inter – Mancini

The Italian says that his former side had a deal in place with the forward and also believes that they can challenge for the title next season

Roberto Mancini has revealed how he regrets not signing Paulo Dybala for Inter after the club were beaten to the forward’s signature by Juventus.
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The Italian says that the Nerazzurri were close to a deal for the Argentine before he ultimately opted to leave Palermo for the Turin giants.

Mancini adds that the club could have offered more for Dybala, who joined Juventus for €32 million, although the fee could rise as high as €40m.

“Dybala has immense class; he is the big regret at Inter,” he told La Stampa. “They had a deal in hand. They could have offered more, however it was over with Juventus.”

Inter take on Juventus on Sunday with the hosts in good form, having won nine out of their last 10 matches in all competitions.

Mancini feels that, while Juventus will be crowned champions this season, his former club can challenge for the title next year.

“Inter is a team that is still improving but this is well-known,” he added. “This does not detract in any way from [Roberto] Gagliardini, who is a great player. He’s young and has quality.

“Juventus will win the league again this year but next year – thanks to the strength of Suning – Inter can really compete on par with them.”
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Mancini has also been linked with replacing Slaven Bilic at West Ham and he was asked why the club are struggling at home after moving into a new stadium over the summer.

“The new Olympic Stadium does not have the same atmosphere of Upton Park; there was a different atmosphere, more noise,” he observed.

“I noticed it myself a few days ago going to see the game against Manchester City. After three losses it had already been pointed out.”

Inter move 'a bit of a shock' – Sainsbury

The Australian defender hadn’t expected to return to Europe so soon after joining Jiangsu Suning but wants to capitalise on his Serie A chance

New Inter defender Trent Sainsbury has admitted his loan move from Jiangsu Suning on transfer deadline day came as a shock but he insists he will “go all out to play” for the Serie A club.

Inter and Jiangsu, who are owned by the same Chinese company, rushed through an agreement on Tuesday to send Sainsbury from China to Italy after Andrea Ranocchia had left the San Siro to join Hull City for the rest of the season.

The Socceroos centre-back was fully committed to a second season in the Chinese Super League but will attempt to settle quickly in Milan as he looks to make the most of the next six months at Inter.

Having joined Jiangsu just over a year ago from Eredivisie outfit PEC Zwolle, Sainsbury never thought he would be heading back to Europe now.
“I didn’t expect to go back so quickly and I must admit to go to a club of this stature is a bit of a shock,” he told the Daily Telegraph.

“I was thinking maybe I would go back to Holland and prove myself in European football again but this massive opportunity has come my way, one that I certainly couldn’t turn down.

“It’s the chance to play with and against some of the best players in Europe, in fact some of the best in the world. To go and pit myself against them will be a good fight — it’s a short time period, so that allows me to give everything I possibly have until the end of the loan period and see where it takes me.”

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Realistically, three players – Miranda, Jeison Murillo and Gary Medel – are ahead of the Australia international in Inter’s central defensive pecking order.

But with Miranda having been sent off in Inter’s Coppa Italia loss to Lazio this week, Sainsbury could be in contention for game time when Stefano Pioli’s side visit Serie A leaders Juventus on Sunday.

#Sainsbury: “L’@Inter è stata uno choc, ma ora voglio lasciare il segno” – https://t.co/Rk9WNAw3or pic.twitter.com/gAhyc3JBbG
— SportMediaset.it (@Sport_Mediaset) February 1, 2017
“I’m going to have to adjust very quickly, no doubt – European football is dog-eat-dog,” Sainsbury said.

“But I don’t want to go there just to make up the numbers or for the experience, I want to go all out to play.”

Inter have won seven games in a row in the Italian top flight to sit fourth in Serie A, just five points behind second-placed Roma, with Juventus four points further ahead.

Inter 1-2 Lazio: Nerazzurri's Coppa Italia dreams go up in smoke

The Romans were forced to dig deep late on with 10 men when Brozovic pulled the hosts back in contention, but held on to reach the semi-finals

Inter crashed out of the Coppa Italia as Stefano Pioli was haunted by former club Lazio, who claimed a 2-1 quarter-final victory at San Siro.

The hosts came into the tie on a nine-match winning streak and Lazio had lost two straight games, but the form book was turned upside down in a match that saw both sides finish with 10 men.

Felipe Anderson headed in his third goal of the season in the first half as Serie A’s fourth and fifth-placed teams did battle in the cup.

And Lucas Biglia struck with a second-half penalty after Miranda had been sent off for a foul on Ciro Immobile.

Inter had hopes of a comeback when Stefan Radu received a second yellow for the visitors and Marcelo Brozovic struck with a late header, but Lazio survived.

Lazio, who are now one step away from a third Coppa Italia final in five years, will face either city rivals Roma or second-tier Cesena in the semi-finals.

Pioli’s men, meanwhile, are still waiting for a first final appearance since 2011 and their sole focus for the rest of 2016-17 will be on Champions League qualification.

Inter made the stronger start, Ivan Perisic firing narrowly wide before Geoffrey Kondogbia – in as one of five changes – sent a drive against the foot of the post after Biglia had lost possession in a dangerous area.

But it was Lazio who took the lead against the run of play after 20 minutes. Senad Lulic sent in an inswinging cross from the left and Anderson escaped the attention of Cristian Ansaldi to guide a deft header into the far corner.

Simone Inzaghi’s men were buoyed by the opener and should have doubled their lead with two golden chances before half-time.

First, Immobile, who was returning to the side as part of four alterations for the visitors, blazed over after Miranda’s mistake had presented with him a superb chance.

Anderson was then sent clean through by Radu, but somehow failed to beat Samir Handanovic one-on-one, the goalkeeper making a crucial save.

At the other end, Federico Marchetti saved from Brozovic, while Antonio Candreva had a strong penalty claim turned down after he was challenged by both Patric and Marco Parolo.

Pioli made a double half-time change with captain Mauro Icardi and Joao Mario brought on, but Lazio soon squandered another great opportunity as Parolo fired over from inside the six-yard box after Handanovic parried Wesley Hoedt’s header.

The second goal was coming and it arrived from the penalty spot after 56 minutes. After Joao Mario lost possession, Alessandro Murgia’s floated pass released Immobile, who was felled by Miranda as he prepared to shoot.

That saw the defender sent off and Biglia confidently dispatched the resulting spot-kick into the top corner.

Inter did not give up with 10 men – Jeison Murilo missed the target with a free header and Icardi had an aerial effort of his own deflect inches wide.

But Lazio remained a threat, Anderson’s mixed night continuing when he collected Lulic’s pass and finished poorly off-target with only Handanovic to beat.

Radu saw red with 14 minutes to play after he fouled Icardi having already been booked in the first half and Brozovic headed in impressively with six minutes to play after Perisic had diverted Candreva’s cross into his path.

But it proved just too late for Inter as Lazio held on under intense late pressure.

Who is Trent Sainsbury? From Gosford to Jiangsu to Milan – Australian defender's incredible Inter-national journey

The Socceroos defender has earned a dream move to one of Europe’s grand old clubs but can he make an impact?

Inter fans are likely to wake up on Wednesday with one question on their mind after the Serie A club’s shock deadline day move.

Who exactly is Trent Sainsbury?

It wouldn’t be a huge surprise either if Sainsbury is equally bemused at having joined one of Europe’s grand old clubs.

The Socceroos defender has moved to Inter on loan from Chinese Super League (CSL) club Jiangsu Suning for the rest of the season after the Serie A outfit lent Andrea Ranocchia to Hull City on Tuesday.

#WelcomeSainsbury! Find out which shirt number the new #Inter defender will wearhttps://t.co/NCazVhmsEA #FCIM pic.twitter.com/UYvobc2eXE
— F.C. Internazionale (@Inter_en) January 31, 2017
Such is the global nature of football’s new world order, however, that this move owes just as much to Jiangsu’s needs in the CSL as it does to a gap in Stefano Pioli’s Inter squad.

But although there may be some critics questioning Sainsbury’s ability to make an impact in Serie A, the 25-year-old has the opportunity to turn this deal into a win for all interested parties.

A road less travelled

Born in Perth, Sainsbury’s professional football career began on the other side of Australia in the small coastal town of Gosford.

The highly-rated central defender joined Central Coast Mariners in 2010 as an 18-year-old and after two seasons as a fringe player he was central to the club’s maiden A-League championship of 2012-13.

Sainsbury started all but two of the Mariners’ 29 matches, including Central Coast’s 2-0 grand final triumph over Western Sydney Wanderers to claim the title.

The lanky defender departed Australia midway through the next season after 69 appearances in all competitions for the Mariners, joining PEC Zwolle in the Netherlands.

Sainsbury’s Dutch sojourn started in dreadful fashion as he fractured his kneecap on a submerged sprinkler during his Eredivisie debut.

The injury kept Sainsbury sidelined for the rest of the 2013-14 campaign but the next season he began to show some promise, playing 23 matches in all competitions.

After playing an integral role in Australia’s maiden Asian Cup triumph in early 2015, Sainsbury appeared ready to take the next step in Europe only to leave for China within a year.

His decision to join Jiangsu received a mixed reception in Australia but Sainsbury had a strong debut CSL season, playing 29 matches as his club finished second behind Guangzhou Evergrande in the league and the Chinese FA Cup.

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Having moved to Inter, Sainsbury is at the highest profile club of all current Australia internationals.

The loan deal may have a ‘right place, right time’ feel to it, but the Australian wouldn’t be the first player in football history to capitalise on a slice of luck.

Surplus to Jiangsu’s requirements

The simple reason why Sainsbury has been chosen as defensive cover at Inter is that the Milan-based club and Jiangsu Suning have the same Chinese owners.

This was a deal that could be organised quickly once Ranocchia departed for the Premier League.

Recent changes to the CSL’s foreign player rules also meant Jiangsu were keen to offload Sainsbury as they have an overabundance of imports heading into the 2017 campaign.

CSL clubs will only be able to field three imports at any one time this season, while there is no longer any benefit of having a player from another Asian Football Confederation (AFC) nation.

Previously, the CSL allowed four foreign players on the pitch with one of those spots reserved for AFC players.

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With Sainsbury gone, Jiangsu have Brazilian duo Alex Teixeira and Ramires on their books, plus Colombian forward Roger Martinez and South Korean centre-back Hong Jeong-ho.

That quartet will be able to play together when Jiangsu compete in the AFC Champions League (ACL) this year, as the continental competition operates the so-called 3+1 import quota.

While Sainsbury was a regular at the back for Jiangsu last year, new coach Choi Yong-soo may have preferred compatriot Hong to the Socceroos defender in 2017.

“We greatly appreciate the contributions made by Sainsbury last season and thanks for all the joy and pride he brought to our fans,” read a statement from Jiangsu.

“We wish him luck and all the best in his new challenge.”

Win-win situation for Inter

Inter fans shouldn’t believe, however, that they have replaced an Italy international with a CSL reject.

Over the past two years, Sainsbury has become one of the first players picked by Australia coach Ange Postecoglou as the Socceroos have been crowned Asian champions and put themselves in a good position to reach the 2018 World Cup.

Sainsbury’s height and pace means that he is a physical match for most strikers, while he is used to starting attacks from the back due to Postecoglou’s penchant for possession-based football.

As a foreign defender in China, Sainsbury was expected to mark the best opposition striker every week.

In 2016, the top five goal-scorers in the CSL collectively scored just two goals against Jiangsu when Sainsbury played.

In reality though, just as Ranocchia wasn’t a favourite of Pioli, neither does Inter’s coach have to rely on Sainsbury.

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Miranda and Jeison Murillo will be expected to remain Pioli’s preferred central defensive pair.

But with Miranda having received a red card in Inter’s Coppa Italia loss to Lazio, there could be an opportunity for Sainsbury to make an early impact if he’s given a dream debut in the Derby d’Italia on Sunday against Juventus.

Chile international Gary Medel, who made his return from a knee injury last week, is the favourite to cover Miranda.

Signing Sainsbury on loan is a shrewd move by Inter as they can simply send him back to Jiangsu at the end of the season if he can’t perform at the level required.

But with Pioli’s other central defensive options – Marco Andreolli and Yao – having played just one league match between them this term, there is room for Sainsbury to impress Inter’s boss.

It is the chance of a lifetime for the Socceroos centre-back.

Hull defender Davies ruled out as Ranocchia speculation grows

The Tigers have been hit with a blow after the 31-year-old was ruled out but could be about to bring in an experienced replacement

Hull City centre-back Curtis Davies has been ruled out for around eight weeks with a hamstring injury, amid speculation the Premier League strugglers are poised to bring in Inter defender Andrea Ranocchia.

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Davies limped off during the opening stages Hull’s 4-1 FA Cup defeat to Championship Fulham on Sunday.

A brief statement posted on the club’s official website confirmed the severity of the 31-year-old’s injury and reports on Monday suggested Marco Silva could quickly secure cover at centre-back.
Ranocchia, who has 21 caps for Italy, has been linked with a loan move to the KCOM Stadium until the end of the season by Italian media.

The 28-year-old has been restricted to nine appearances for Inter this season.