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    Milan giants left to battle for 2nd

2006-03-18 07:27

ROME: The race for second place in Serie A heats up when Inter Milan host Lazio and AC Milan play Udinese away on Sunday.

Barring an unlikely late collapse by leaders Juventus, the title seems bound for Turin.

Juve's 0-0 draw with second-placed Milan last weekend cemented the reigning champions' position at the top of the division on 74 points, 10 points clear with nine games to play.

But with third-placed Inter just two points behind Milan, the battle for the runners-up spot and the second automatic place in the group stages of the Champions League looks set to run to the end of the season.

Fourth-placed Fiorentina, on 56 points with a game in hand, could also force their way back into the reckoning, but for now the two Milan giants are set to slug it out with Inter boss Roberto Mancini facing the harder task this weekend as he takes on the side he coached between 2002 and 2004.

Rome-based Lazio have lost all their star players since almost going out of business three seasons ago and are a shadow of the side Mancini guided to a fourth place finish in 2003.

They have performed above expectations this season, however, under new coach Delio Rossi.

Their 3-1 win over Reggina in the last round of matches lifted them to seventh in the division, two points off the last UEFA Cup berth, currently held by Livorno.

Lazio's standard bearer, Paolo Di Canio, is suspended, but the team can still boast two excellent counter-attacking strikers in Tommaso Rocchi and Goran Pandev.

Most of the attention around Inter at the moment remains focused on the erratic form of their leading striker Adriano, who broke a 10-match goal drought when he grabbed the winner in last week's 1-0 victory over Sampdoria.

The Brazilian scuffed a penalty in the midweek Champions League match against Ajax which Inter won 1-0.

Dented confidence

Inter president Giacinto Facchetti said he hoped the penalty miss had not dented Adriano's confidence.

"He really didn't need that mistake from the penalty spot against Ajax," Facchetti was quoted as saying in La Gazzetta dello Sport on Thursday.

If Inter drop points, in-form Milan will almost certainly take advantage by beating Udinese, who began this season competing in the Champions League, but risk ending it in the Serie A relegation zone after a run of eight winless games.

Their morale was dealt a further blow when they were knocked out of the UEFA Cup by Levski Sofia on Thursday.

Juventus also start as strong favourites to take the points at Livorno, who are sixth but have had a run of disappointing results since Roberto Donadoni quit as coach last month.

The Tuscan side come into the match on the back of successive defeats against relegation-threatened Cagliari and Parma and will be without their leading scorer Cristiano Lucarelli, who has a thigh injury.

Juve have gone 19 matches unbeaten since their one and only defeat to AC Milan and their points total of 74 is a Serie A record after 29 matches played.

A 29th league title for the 'Old Lady' appears to be in the bag, but goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is reluctant to start celebrating before it's mathematically certain.

"I don't want to tempt fate," said the Italy number one, who missed the first six months of the campaign after dislocating his right shoulder in a pre-season tournament. "We're a long way ahead, but the Scudetto isn't yet won. That's the reality."

Buffon said he was expecting a tough match on Saturday at the ground where Juve clinched the title last season.

"Livorno are a dangerous side, but we have the strength to overcome them."

Buffon believes he has recovered fully from his shoulder injury - not just physically, but also mentally.

"I think I am the same player I was before the injury," said the 28-year-old. "Many people had doubts, but I've proved them wrong."

In the other matches, Fiorentina host mid-table Ascoli. The tiny club from the Le Marche region were expected to make a swift return to Serie B, but have proved their critics wrong and are unbeaten in their last seven matches.

Fifth-placed Roma, one point behind Fiorentina, know how dangerous Ascoli can be after losing 3-2 to them last weekend, but will be hoping to get their bid for a Champions League place back on track by beating Messina.

(China Daily 03/18/2006 page11)


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