League leaders AC Milan face a tough year-ending test against Lazio on Wednesday as they begin to feel the breath of the chasing pack upon their necks in the Scudetto race.
Simone Inzaghi's visiting side deservedly defeated Napoli last time out to sit eighth in the Serie A standings - just three points behind rivals Roma in the coveted fourth spot.
Having started the season with a bang, Stefano Pioli's exciting new-look Milan are accustomed to racing out of the traps leaving the opposition lying startled in their wake.
Even so, the incredible speed of Rafael Leao's third league goal of the season shocked even some of his colleagues, as he netted the fastest goal in the history of Serie A after just six seconds against Sassuolo last week.
That history-making strike at the Mapei Stadium helped Milan to a 2-1 win over Roberto De Zerbi's well-drilled side, even in the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his makeshift deputy Ante Rebic - both of whom were injured.
The Rossoneri therefore approach Christmas still top of the tree, just one point above local rivals Inter but with a gap of 10 over this week's opponents, against whom they have a dominant record in recent years.
With at least one goal in their last 16 successive league games against the Roman club, Milan are unbeaten in 29 of their last 30 home games against Lazio in Serie A. However, their only defeat in this period came in the most recent meeting at San Siro last November.
Their unbeaten league record this season is - along with title rivals Juventus - one of only two remaining in Europe's top championships, so Milan will be doubly determined for it to remain intact and to keep bitter foes Inter behind them heading into a potentially prosperous 2021.
Lazio coach Simone Inzaghi has habitually had to reshuffle his pack throughout an intensely-scheduled, injury-hit 2020-21 campaign to date.
Again, at the weekend, first-teamers such as Joaquin Correa, Marco Parolo, Lucas Leiva and Mohamed Fares were missing, with defensive lynchpin Francesco Acerbi also pulling out during the warm-up.
High-quality goals from top scorer Ciro Immobile and midfield maestro Luis Alberto earned the Biancocelesti a fine 2-0 victory over Napoli in a head-to-head between two top-four contenders.
A win in those circumstances, then, offers a timely boost in morale ahead of a difficult end-of-term assignment at San Siro on Wednesday.
Lazio have picked up an admirable total of 10 points from their last four Serie A away matches and since the start of November only Milan have averaged more points than the Biancocelesti away from home in the Italian top flight.
Last season's capocannoniere Immobile has been the chief architect of their improved form after his return from quarantine, having registered 12 goals in 13 appearances in all competitions since the start of October. Only Robert Lewandowski (with 19), Erling Haaland (14), Mohammed Salah and Cristiano Ronaldo(both 13) have netted more in the top five European Leagues during that time.
Fixtures against lowly trio Genoa, Fiorentina and Parma straight after the brief winter break could afford Inzaghi's squad - which has been burdened by battling on two fronts with a shallow squad and several absentees - the chance to catch up ground lost in the autumn, before the Rome derby arrives in mid-January.
First though, the Aquile must travel north for an encounter with Stefano Pioli's young and hungry side - a prospect which should excite and concern them in equal measure.
AC Milan Serie A form: WWWDDW
AC Milan form (all competitions): WWWDDW
Lazio Serie A form: WLWLDW
Lazio form (all competitions): DWDLDW
Having previously lost two first-choice forwards, Milan are experiencing a midfield emergency this week, with Ismael Bennacer and Sandro Tonali - who was replaced midway through Sunday's game with a muscle pull - both injured and Franck Kessie suspended.
Rade Krunic could therefore come into the engine room alongside Hakan Calhanoglu in a deeper role than he is accustomed to. Alternatively, defender Davide Calabria could be pressed into service as a stop-gap solution.
Record-breaking Rafael Leao continues up front in light of the absences of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ante Rebic - who may return to the bench if passed fit - while Pierre Kalulu may have to continue at centre-back if Simon Kjaer is not yet fit to return.
If passed fit for Lazio, Joaquin Correa would come back in alongside Ciro Immobile in attack, with 'supersub' Felipe Caicedo dropping back to the bench.
Injured Mohamed Fares and Lucas Leiva are expected to miss out again in midfield, while centre-back Francesco Acerbi is struggling to return from a thigh strain, so Wesley Hoedt and Adam Marusic should continue in Simone Inzaghi's customary 3-5-2.
Pepe Reina's good form is expected to consign previous Biancocelesti number one Thomas Strakosha to the sidelines once again.
AC Milan possible starting lineup:
Donnarumma; Calabria, Kalulu, Romagnoli, Hernandez; Krunic, Calhanoglu; Saelemaekers, Diaz, Hauge; Leao
Lazio possible starting lineup:
Reina; Felipe, Hoedt, Radu; Lazzari, Milinkovic-Savic, Cataldi, Alberto, Marusic; Immobile, Correa
Source: Sports Mole / Jonathan O'Shea