Jan 3 (Reuters) - Serie A returns in style after the Christmas break as leaders Juventus seek their 10th successive league win when they host their nearest challengers, unbeaten AS Roma, in a top-of-the table clash on Sunday.
Juventus playmaker Andrea Pirlo is set to return for the champions after a month-long injury layoff, although they may not need him judging by performances in the three games without him.
Antonio Conte's side have 46 points from 17 games, five clear of their opponents, and another win on Sunday (1945 GMT) would put them well on course for a third successive title with just over half the season still to play.
In fact, their biggest challenge could be to hold on to their top players such as midfielders Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba during the month-long transfer window.
Italian football can no longer match the salaries paid by top clubs elsewhere and has seen an unprecedented exodus of top players over the last few years.
Big names moving to Italy tend to be those who have struggled holding down first-team places or who have fallen out with their coaches, such as former Manchester City duo Carlos Tevez, now at Juventus, and Mario Balotelli, at AC Milan.
Juventus and Roma are, by a long way, the best in Serie A and have conceded only 18 goals between them.
Juventus have won 15 of their 17 games as they have continued the domestic dominance they have enjoyed in the last two seasons.
Frenchmen Rudi Garcia has transformed Roma this term and they have been unrecognisable from last season's bickering, disorganised outfit.
They are in the odd position of finding themselves five points adrift of the leaders despite being unbeaten, mainly due to a series of five draws which coincided with the injury-enforced absence of talismanic forward Francesco Totti.
"Garcia has given us the confidence which we didn't have during the last campaign," Brazilian defender Leandro Castan told Sky Sports Italia.
"What I want from 2014 is the Scudetto at Roma. It would be a perfect year for the squad and myself."
Goalkeeper Morgan De Sanctis added: "It's a bit surprising that we haven't lost a game and are second. We might not be going into this game in a favourable position but there are a lot of games left after Sunday and anything can happen."
Pirlo has missed three league games since suffering a knee sprain against Udinese in early December, although Juventus have won all of those and scored 10 goals in the process with Frenchman Paul Pogba proving a more than able to carry the team in his absence.
The 34-year-old Pirlo has made a quick recovery and took part in a training game on Thursday without any ill-effects, Italian media said. Tevez is also back after returning home late from a holiday trip to his native Argentina due to family problems.
Seven games will be played on Monday, a bank holiday in Italy, which will give Lazio an extra day to decide on their coach for the visit of Inter Milan (1730 GMT).
Italian media have reported that the club want to sack Vladimir Petkovic after he agreed terms to take over the Swiss national side from next season and that his predecessor Edoardo Reja has led training sessions this week.
But Petkovic, whose contract runs until the end of this season, says he has heard nothing in writing from Lazio and still considers himself to be in charge.
Third-placed Napoli (36 points) are at home to Sampdoria in another of Monday's matches (1130) while AC Milan will attempt to chalk up only their fifth league win of the season at home to Atalanta (1400). (Writing by Brian Homewood in Berne, editing by Pritha Sarkar) (Reuters Messaging: email@example.com. To sign up for our Global Sports Forum chatroom, click on https://forms.thomsonreuters.com/global_sports_forum))