MILAN (AP) — In one of the tightest Serie A title races of recent seasons, there is one noticeable absentee.
AC Milan was expected to be back at the top after spending more than 200 million euros (nearly $250 million) on new players in the offseason.
However, it approaches the halfway stage a lowly 11th in the standings, and there have been claims over the financial stability of the Chinese-led consortium that purchased the club from Silvio Berlusconi for $800 million in April.
Milan fired coach Vincenzo Montella in November and replaced him with former player Gennaro Gattuso but there has been little change in fortunes.
Gattuso's first match in charge was a draw against Benevento, which had not picked up a single point until that moment, and he has lost two of his three league matches since then.
To make matters worse for the Rossoneri, they have been forced to watch as bitter neighbor Inter Milan has proved itself a surprise contender for the Serie A title.
Champions League qualification was seen as the minimum requirement for Milan this season, especially with Italy sending four teams to Europe's premier club competition next year, but it is 14 points off the final berth.
Indeed, Milan is closer to the relegation zone than the top four as only nine points separates it from the bottom three of Crotone, Hellas Verona and Benevento — which still has just that point it earned against the Rossoneri.
After 18 of 38 rounds, a closer look at the first half of the season:
This could be the season that Juve's stranglehold on the Serie A title is ended.
Juventus has won the Italian league in each of the last six seasons but there are several challengers to its crown this year, and just nine points between the top five sides.
Napoli leads the pack, with 45 points, one ahead of Juventus and five above Inter. Roma has 38 points, two more than Lazio, but both the capital sides have played a match less than the top three.
However, while Juventus undoubtedly has the experience and capability of withstanding a tough title battle, there are question marks over its rivals.
Napoli, whose only league defeat was against Juventus, does not have much strength in depth and has already had several players ruled out with long-term injuries.
Inter's problem is its staying power: it was in a similar position last season but collapsed and eventually finished seventh. There are signs a repeat could be on the cards as Inter, which was the last unbeaten team in the league, has lost its past two matches.
PICK OF THE PLAYERS
Lorenzo Insigne wasn't even born when Napoli last won the Serie A title. He could now fire his hometown club to its next league trophy.
Insigne has been at the heart of most of Napoli's goals this season and coach Maurizio Sarri believes the 26-year-old is as important to the team as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar are for Barcelona, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain, respectively.
Insigne made 60 consecutive starts for Napoli in all competitions before his injury against Juventus and it was no coincidence the team struggled to create goals while he was on the sidelines.
The Italy forward has scored two goals in three matches since his return and Sarri will be hoping he stays injury-free if Napoli is going to win its first Serie A title since Diego Maradona led the club to its only two championships in 1987 and 1990.
Lucas Torreira, a 21-year-old defensive midfielder for Sampdoria, leads the league in balls won and is also the most fouled player in Serie A — not to mention he scored the second goal in a 3-2 win over Juventus in November.
Winger Federico Chiesa and striker Giovanni Simeone have shown second-generation talent for Fiorentina. Chiesa's father, Enrico, was a prolific scorer, while Simeone's dad, Diego, was a standout Serie A player and is the current coach of Atletico Madrid.
Vanja Milinkovic-Savic, Torino's 20-year-old goalkeeper, pushed a 30-yard free kick off the crossbar in the Italian Cup last month then saved a penalty from Edin Dzeko in a 2-1 win over Roma to reach the quarterfinals.
Also, Lazio midfielder Luis Alberto has shown himself to be a capable assist man, and Udinese midfielder Antonin Barak has scored four goals in his last three matches.
Lazio would not have been on many people's lists for title contenders.
However, an impressive start to the season has left it in fifth place. Indeed, if it wins its match in hand, Lazio could move to within a point of third-place Inter and six below leader Napoli.
Lazio has already beaten Juventus twice this season, in the Italian Super Cup in August and in the league in October.
Leading goalscorer Ciro Immobile netted four goals in those two matches. The Italy forward has scored 16 in as many league matches so far this season.
Young coach Simone Inzaghi has the team playing attractive football and the capital side is challenging on three fronts this season. It is also in the semifinals of the Italian Cup and in the knockout stages of the Europa League.
POINT TO PROVE
There was much fanfare when Leonardo Bonucci joined Milan in July and he was immediately handed the Rossoneri captaincy.
The fee for Bonucci's surprise move from Juventus topped 40 million euros (nearly $50 million), and he signed a five-year contract worth up to 10 million euros (nearly $12 million) per season — making the 30-year-old the highest-paid player in Italy.
Bonucci started poorly and it was figured he just needed some time to adapt to his new surroundings at Milan after seven seasons at Juventus, most of which was spent alongside Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini for club and country.
However, there has been little improvement and Bonucci was even sent off in a 0-0 draw against Genoa for elbowing a defender in the head, causing him to miss two matches.
More AP Serie A coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA
AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf in Rome contributed.