x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Tension for third intensifies for AC Milan down Serie A home stretch

AC Milan's next three matches are against Fiorentina, Napoli and top-placed Juventus. That represents a 15-day spell likely to decide if they finish in the Champions League places, writes Ian Hawkey.

Riccardo Montolivo, centre, scored the only goal in AC Milan's recent win over Chievo. Felice Calabro / AP Photo
Riccardo Montolivo, centre, scored the only goal in AC Milan's recent win over Chievo. Felice Calabro / AP Photo

The greatest source of suspense at the top of Serie A seems these days to come from the question of how long suspense itself might be maintained. The race for the title itself is hardly neck and neck. Even the chase for the third spot, and a Champions League place, could cease to captivate by the middle of this month.

Thanks to their roller-coaster 5-3 win over Torino, second-placed Napoli can dream on about catching Juventus, though a nine-point deficit with eight matches left is a wide gap to bridge.

Meanwhile, the form team of 2012, AC Milan, are reconciled to the fact the 11 points separating them, in third, from a tilt at the scudetto, the Serie A championship, looks an implausible leap.

Which is probably why Milan were even last month turning their attentions to the standout fixture in their prioritised pursuit of a top-three berth for next season, the lunchtime game this Sunday, at Fiorentina.

Milan's next three matches are against the fourth (Fiorentina) the second (Napoli) and the top-placed (Juventus) sides in the table. That represents a 15-day spell likely to decide if they finish in the Champions League places.

Take three points from Florence and Milan would stride nine points away from their nearest threat. Within Milan, Fiorentina's defeat at Cagliari last weekend was greeted with glee.

Some psychological byplay had preceded it, with Milan's Adriano Galliani, the club's vice president, pointedly claiming Fiorentina enjoyed an "unfair" advantage because their match at Cagliari's Is Arenas was played to empty grandstands - the stadium is deemed unsafe. Meanwhile, Milan had dealt with a home crowd in full voice when they drew there in February.

Yesterday brought still better news for Milan. Stevan Jovetic, Fiorentina's leading scorer, will miss Sunday's fixture with an injury.

Vicenzo Montella, Fiorentina's coach, must long for the return to match fitness of Giuseppe Rossi, his €10m (Dh47.1m) capture in the January transfer window. Just under a year ago, Rossi ruptured knee ligaments playing for Villarreal. The road back has been a long one.

The Italy international trained for the first time outdoors with his new teammates last week, although Sunday is deemed too soon for him to make his Fiorentina debut.

"We need to pick up our tempo," said Montella, whose three-match winning streak ended in Sardinia.

After a campaign in which Fiorentina have played some of the division's most pleasing football, he can see his chance to appear on the big European stage next season slipping from his grasp.

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