ROME, Dec 11 (Reuters) - With Inter Milan seven points clear at the top of Serie A there is a real danger that this season's race for the Italian title could turn into a procession.
Inter's lead following their 3-0 win over Empoli at the weekend is not the biggest recorded in the division after 15 rounds.
That honour goes to the Juventus team who held a 10-point lead over Inter and Fiorentina at the same stage 12 months ago.
Milan managed to close the gap to three points by the end of the season before both sides were punished in a match-fixing scandal.
Several differences suggest that Inter will be harder to reel in than Juventus last season.
Then Milan and Inter had the squads and resources to challenge them over the course of a season.
This time, Inter are a class apart both on the pitch and in potential spending power. Their reserves are more than a match for most of the first-choice sides in Serie A.
When Zlatan Ibrahimovic comes off, Adriano comes on. If Ivan Cordoba is injured, Walter Samuel takes his place. When Esteban Cambiasso needs a rest, Luis Figo steps up.
Neither second-placed Roma nor Palermo in third can boast that kind of strength in depth, and as the season continues the disparities between the clubs could become increasingly clear.
Roma, for example, rightly celebrated their qualification for the knockout stage of the Champions League. But now they have progressed to the quarter-finals of the Italian Cup their squad will be stretched across three fronts in the New Year.
Palermo's success, meanwhile, is founded on the fitness of players such as striker David Di Michele and playmaker Eugenio Corini. Without them, the team struggles.
The differences between Inter and their challengers were marked at Empoli on Sunday, when two of the team's second-stringers, Nicolas Burdisso and Alvaro Recoba, gave fine performances to set up all three of Inter's goals.
'No one wants to give up on their dreams, but at a certain point it's important that one wakes up to reality,' Palermo president Maurizio Zamparini told radio station Radio Anch'io Sport on Monday.
'At Empoli we saw Inter was like an armada that you can't stop. In my opinion, they will win the title by 15 to 18 points.'
His sentiments were echoed by Inter coach Roberto Mancini who, after watching his men dispose of Empoli, denied there was any such thing as an Inter second team.
'Our greatest strength is the quality that runs throughout the entire group of players,' he said.
'Here at Empoli the players that won the match for us are players like (defender Nicolas) Burdisso, Samuel, and (midfielder Santiago) Solari.
'They are players that are unjustly referred to as reserves. But all of them deserve respect'.