Inter and Cesena form strange pair atop Serie A

European champion Inter Milan and Cesena make for a strange pairing as the early leaders in Serie A.

Inter is the five-time defending champion of the Italian league, while Cesena is making its first appearance in the top division in nearly 20 years.

With a salary total of €121.4 million ($159 million), Inter trails only AC Milan as the biggest spending club, while Cesena has the smallest payroll of €8.3 million ($11 million) – nearly as much as Inter pays its most expensive player, Samuel Eto’o.

Yet through three rounds, Inter and Cesena are level on seven points, one notch in front of three other clubs.

"Inter has confirmed itself while Cesena is showing that the newly promoted clubs can create problems for everyone – especially at the start – if they’re organized well and they have the right enthusiasm," Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said.

Cesena is the only club that has not allowed a goal and its points have all been hard earned. The Emilia Romagna-based side opened with a 0-0 draw against last season’s runner-up AS Roma, then stunned Milan 2-0 before pulling out a 1-0 win over Lecce last weekend despite having to play with 10 men due to a referee’s error.

The key players so far have been 33-year-old Albania striker Erjon Bogdani, 41-year-old goalkeeper Francesco Antonioli – the oldest player in the league – and promising Italian winger Emanuele Giaccherini – who has earned Prandelli’s attention.

"The club has planned well over the last few years and hasn’t been afraid to take on players that other teams cast off as over the hill," coach Massimo Ficcadenti said.

Cesena’s 36-year-old president Igor Campedelli pointed to the club’s youth program.

"It’s not just by chance that we’re in first place. We singled out a few players to develop and we’ve stuck by them," he said.

The 25-year-old Giaccherini is in his third season with Cesena. He helped the team win the third division in 2008-09 and to a second-place finish in Serie B last season.

Cesena visits Catania in Wednesday’s midweek round and will have captain Giuseppe Colucci available after the league used TV replays to repeal a yellow card that resulted in his expulsion against Lecce.

Colucci was carded for a foul actually committed by Japanese teammate Yuto Nagatomo, prompting referee Gianluca Rocchi to apologize for the error after the game.

Inter hosts Bari after coming back from a goal down to beat Palermo 2-1 with two scores from Eto’o, who has been carrying the squad while fellow striker Diego Milito has been off form.

Eto’o has scored six times in six games in all competitions and is the main reason Inter has weathered a rough start under new manager Rafa Benitez.

The Nerazzurri lost the European Super Cup to Atletico Madrid, opened Serie A with a 0-0 draw at Bologna and were held to 2-2 at FC Twente in the opening game of its Champions League defense, with Eto’o scoring the equalizer.

"Benitez is starting to see the fruits of his efforts and that has boosted our morale amid a difficult start to the season," Inter CEO Ernesto Paolillo said. "When a business gets a new manager it takes some time to adapt and it’s the same thing with coaches. Benitez needed time to get to know the players and vice versa."

Playmaker Wesley Sneijder could return after a foot injury kept him out against Palermo.

Juventus hosts Palermo in Thursday’s lone game, coming off its best performance thus far under its new coach, Luigi Del Neri – a 4-0 thrashing of Udinese on Sunday that resulted in new Serbia winger Milos Krasic being hailed as the new Pavel Nedved.

Milan visits Lazio still struggling to put together its new attack with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho.

Roma has also had a rough start, having given up a two-goal lead in a draw with Bologna at the weekend. Making matters worse, captain Francesco Totti and key midfielder Daniele De Rossi have been left off the squad with physical problems for a visit to Brescia, with a game against Inter looming on Saturday.

Also on Wednesday, it’s: Bologna vs. Udinese; Cagliari vs. Sampdoria; Catania vs. Cesena; Genoa vs. Fiorentina; Lecce vs. Parma; and Napoli vs. Chievo Verona.