MILAN, Italy- In the midst of a superb run of results, AC Milan face stuttering city rivals Inter in the “Derby della Madonnina” this weekend looking to haul themselves right into Champions League contention in Serie A.
Sunday’s game will be the moment of truth for Inter coach Luciano Spalletti, as amid claims of dressing room quarrels the club have still not fully emerged from the crisis of recent weeks, despite last week’s win against bottom club Benevento.
They occupy fourth position — the final Champions League spot — but Roma are just one point behind before they go to leaders Napoli. Milan are seven points behind in seventh.
Steven Zhang — son of owner Zhang Jindong — joined the Inter team at their snow-covered Appiano Gentile training centre this week, underlining the significance of the clash as they struggle for form.
“This weekend is the moment of truth,” said Inter centre-back Milan Skriniar of a game which will be followed by a home clash with Napoli.
“Certainly my stay at Inter isn’t linked to whether we qualify for the Champions League, although I’m convinced we’ll get there,” added the Slovak, who joined from Sampdoria last summer.
Inter should be boosted by the return of captain and top scorer Mauro Icardi as he targets his 100th Serie A goal.
He scored a hat-trick when Inter won their last Serie A derby meeting 3-2 in October, but AC Milan took the honours in the Italian Cup in December, a Patrick Cutrone goal in extra time giving them a 1-0 victory.
Milan are unbeaten since then, and are currently riding high after back-to-back wins at the Stadio Olimpico during the week.
Gennaro Gattuso’s side beat Roma in Serie A and then battled past Lazio 5-4 on penalties to reach the Italian Cup final, where they will face Juventus.
Undefeated in 13 games in all competitions, Milan know a win against their great rivals will bring them right into contention for a top-four place and Champions League qualification.
Sampdoria, who sit in a Europa League berth in sixth, travel to Atalanta who are six points back in eighth.
Champions Juventus, fresh from booking their ticket to a fourth straight Italian Cup final, travel to Lazio, with the Romans still licking their wounds from their midweek Cup loss to Milan.
Juventus are four points behind Napoli, but with a game in hand after last weekend’s fixture against Atalanta was snowed off.
Simone Inzaghi’s Lazio are coming off back-to-back Serie A wins and are third in the table.
But Juve coach Massimiliano Allegri will be looking to set the tone for next week’s crunch Champions League last 16, second leg trip to Tottenham Hotspur.
Top scorer Gonzalo Higuain is still a doubt with an ankle injury, and is racing to be fit for the Spurs game.
Out of the Europa League, Napoli’s sole focus is now on securing a first Scudetto in 28 years, and they host Roma looking to extend their winning run to 11 games.
Captain Marek Hamsik is a doubt with flu but Piotr Zielinski could come in.
“Roma are coming off two consecutive defeats so we’re expecting them to arrive wounded in Naples and with the desire to win,” said Zielinski.
Pole Zielinski dreams of celebrating at the San Paolo on May 20, the last day of the season and also his birthday.
“We feel we’re not far from our goal, we’re doing great things and we have to keep it up, 12 finals await us.”
Fixtures (all times GMT)
SPAL v Bologna (1400), Lazio v Juventus (1700), Napoli v AS Roma
Genoa v Cagliari (1130), Atalanta v Sampdoria, Benevento v Verona, Chievo v Sassuolo, Torino v Crotone, Udinese v Fiorentina (all 1400), AC Milan v Inter Milan (1945)