Chase for Champions League spots intensifying in Serie A
MILAN (AP) — While it seems only a total collapse could keep Napoli from winning its first Serie A title in 33 years, the chase for the three remaining Champions League spots is intensifying.
Napoli’s victory over Salernitana on Saturday combined with losses for AC Milan and Inter Milan has given the southern team a 12-point lead at the top of the standings. Only three points separate the five teams immediately below it — with second-place Milan having 38 points; Lazio, Inter and Roma with 37; and Atalanta with 35.
Milan will be hoping to end a terrible run when the defending champions host Sassuolo on Sunday, less than a week after Tuesday’s 4-0 loss at Lazio left the team without a win in its past five matches.
That streak has seen Milan eliminated from the Italian Cup by Torino before drawing 2-2 at Lecce. Perhaps the most painful loss came last week when Milan was beaten by city rival Inter 3-0 in the Italian Super Cup.
“We lost in the Super Cup, we’ve conceded 11 goals in three matches. This is a delicate moment," Milan director Paolo Maldini said. "At the same time we’re alone in second place, so I don’t think it’s a massive disaster.
“It’s clear that this is a rough moment. In terms of technique, tactics, but above all state of mind, this isn’t our best moment. That’s really clear.”
The last time Milan was in a similarly negative period it almost fired coach Stefano Pioli at the start of 2020 — just a few months into his tenure — to replace him with Ralf Rangnick. Milan was in advanced negotiations with the German coach before changing its mind.
Maldini laughed off suggestions the title-winning coach’s job was again at risk.
“That is a question I hoped I wouldn’t get. But I’d have to answer yes (we have faith in him) … we’re second in the standings, and I’ll remind you that two years ago, after a seven-year absence, we qualified for the Champions League, then we deservedly won the Serie A title last season, and we’re second in the league,” Maldini said.
“With all due respect for the criticism, which is deserved, I’d look at the facts. We’ll beat this slump in the usual way, with hard work and all pulling in the same direction … At the moment the team isn’t playing well, it’s not in great shape physically or mentally, but it’s still there.”
Milan will have to get out of its slump fast, especially with the Serie A derby against Inter coming up on Feb. 5.
Inter also has been in mixed form and its Super Cup celebrations were hampered by a home loss to Empoli on Monday. The Nerazzurri next face last-place Cremonese on Saturday before taking on Atalanta in the Italian Cup quarterfinals.
Atalanta hosts relegation-threatened Sampdoria, also on Saturday, while Lazio plays Fiorentina and Roma visits Napoli on Sunday.
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Daniella Matar, The Associated Press