MILAN (AP) — AC Milan is coping better without its veteran talisman than Inter Milan. And that's bad news for defending champion Inter heading into the final four matches of the Italian league season.
Milan has had to play large swathes of the season without Zlatan Ibrahimović but dealt with his absence well, with the 40-year-old forward a constant presence on the sidelines, cheering and urging his younger teammates on.
Inter played one match without its captain Samir Handanović and may well have seen its chances of retaining the title evaporate. The 37-year-old goalkeeper faces a race to be fit for Sunday’s match at Udinese, which has become a must-win game.
Handanović, who had played all 33 of Inter’s previous league games this season, missed Wednesday’s rescheduled match against Bologna with a back problem and was replaced by Ionuț Radu.
Inter seemed on course for victory following Ivan Perišić’s third-minute opener but Marko Arnautović leveled and a horrendous mistake from Radu gifted Bologna the winner — and possibly Milan the title — nine minutes from time.
The 24-year-old Radu left the field in tears and had to be comforted by his teammates, including Denzel Dumfries, who also tried to block the television cameras from filming the goalkeeper’s distress.
Handanović walked from the bench to the tunnel without appearing to give his sobbing teammate a glance.
“My whole staff and I have really great confidence in Radu,” Inter coach Simone Inzaghi said after the match. “If an attacker makes a mistake, or a defender loses his man, it’s talked about less. It was an unfortunate incident which penalized us but unfortunate incidents should always be prevented.
“If we had been 2-0 or 3-0 up it wouldn’t have mattered that much, Radu should stay calm because he is a great goalkeeper and has a very rosy career ahead of him.”
For four months, Inter Milan had been pointing to its postponed match at Bologna as a chance to gain ground in the title race but instead it left the Nerazzurri two points behind Serie A leader Milan.
Milan could even afford to draw one of its final matches as it also has the better head-to-head record, which is the first tiebreaker in the Italian league.
“This defeat really hurts but we must bounce back instantly,” Inzaghi said. “We have another game to play in three days’ time, then our last three with the Coppa Italia final in between. We must prepare properly for these last few games although we’re no longer masters of our own destiny.
“It hurts to lose and it’s harder for us now. But we need to keep going, bearing in mind that we’re playing catchup. It was all in our hands and now we’re behind. We’ve found ourselves behind other teams before, though. All we can do now is win all our remaining games.”
Radu almost put Inter out of the Italian Cup, too. He scored an own-goal in his only other appearance for Inter this season to put Empoli 2-1 up in their round-of-16 match before a stoppage-time strike from Andrea Ranocchia sent the match to extra time, where Stefano Sensi scored the winner.
Inter will be hoping to have Handanović back for the match against Udinese. Handanović has helped his side have the meanest defense in Serie A, allowing only 26 goals in 33 matches before its 2-1 defeat to Bologna.
After the trip to Udine, Inter plays Empoli at home and is then away at Cagliari before hosting Sampdoria in the final match of the season.
Milan hosts Fiorentina on Sunday before matches against Hellas Verona, Atalanta and Sassuolo.
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Daniella Matar, The Associated Press