Dec 6 (Reuters) - Antonio Conte has, in the words of Juventus goalkeeper and club captain Gianluigi Buffon, been like a "caged lion" while serving his touchline and changing room ban over the past four months.
The Juve coach was barred from the Bianconeri bench after being found guilty of failing to report attempts to fix matches during the 2010-11 season while in charge at Siena, then a Serie B club.
Initially handed a 10-month ban, which would have seen him sidelined for the entire season, his punishment was reduced on appeal to four months and, this Sunday, Conte returns to his normal matchday duties as Juventus take on Palermo in Sicily.
It has been a frustrating time for the coach, who has had to watch his charges from high up in the stands, often clutching a vial of holy water and occasionally kicking out at surrounding seats, but the club have continued to impress both domestically and, crucially for their future plans, in Europe.
Progression to the knockout stage of the Champions League has been a huge boost for the Italian champions, who remain top of Serie A, two points ahead of a lively Napoli and with a chasing pack including Inter Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio.
The Turin club's ability to score goals from all around the team and, in particular, the midfield, has been a plus point, but recent blips, notably two defeats against both Milan clubs in November, have highlighted Juve's pressing need to sign a target man.
Both Mirko Vucinic and Sebastian Giovinco have been busy doing their bit, but neither could be said to provide a physical presence and both tend to prefer a second striker-type role.
Re-establishing themselves at Europe's top table provides Juventus with a stronger hand in the January transfer window, with Athletic Bilbao's Fernando Llorente still the first choice, even if the Spaniard now looks set to stay at the San Mames Stadium until the end of the season.
'WE WILL WIN'
Equally, Wednesday's 1-0 victory against Shakhtar Donetsk in the Ukraine has lifted confidence, with Conte's reappearance on the touchlines providing further motivation in the run-up to the winter break.
However, getting a result in Palermo, despite the Sicilians hovering fourth from bottom just above the drop zone, won't be easy.
"We will win, 2-1," Palermo club captain and striker Fabrizio Miccoli confidently told reporters this week.
"I'll definitely score one goal and (Franco) Brienza will get the other. For the Bianconeri? (Andrea) Pirlo." You read it here first."
While Juve will be looking to consolidate their lead at the top of the table, Napoli travel to third-placed Inter, with the San Siro outfit in stuttering form, set against the backdrop of the ongoing Wesley Sneijder saga.
The Dutchman turned down a new contract on Monday, unhappy at being asked to accept a reduced wage deal, with a January move away from the Nerazzurri looking increasingly likely.
AC Milan, now up to seventh, though still 14 points behind Juve, face a trip to Torino, where they will be looking to win their third consecutive Serie A match. But coach Massimiliano Allegri has voiced concerns about his side's defensive record after conceding 19 goals this season.
Roma's game with Fiorentina, on Saturday provides a useful pointer for the near-future fortunes of both clubs, with the former looking an increasingly serious proposition and the latter seeing some recent sparkling form come juddering to a halt following a series of key injuries. (Editing by Patrick Johnston)
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