(Reuters) - It looked like being a thrilling Serie A title race, but Inter Milan's run of six league wins in a row has given them breathing space at the top and left AC Milan and Juventus with no margin for error.
Looking to end Juve's nine-year Scudetto monopoly, Inter and Milan were separated by just one point going into their derby clash less than two weeks ago.
Having disposed of Milan in emphatic fashion, however, Inter have stormed clear at the summit, moving six points ahead of their rivals after 25 games, and 10 clear of champions Juventus ahead of Monday's match against Atalanta.
Juventus and Milan, who have both dropped points in the last week, cannot afford to slip up again.
Andrea Pirlo's Juve have won just two of their last six games in all competitions, and face a tough challenge in top-four chasing Lazio at the Juventus Stadium on Saturday, but the coach is not giving up the title yet.
"The gap is just the points that separate us," Pirlo said after his side's 3-0 win over Spezia on Wednesday.
"We know it will be a long chase, Inter have been playing together for two years, they have a well-drilled approach, whereas we just started this season (under Pirlo). We still intend to be there right to the end."
At least Cristiano Ronaldo remains at the top of his game. The Portuguese's late strike against Spezia means he has become the first player to score at least 20 league goals in each of the past 12 seasons in Europe's top five leagues.
Another veteran striker's absence could really dent Milan's title hopes as they prepare for a tricky trip to Hellas Verona on Sunday.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic picked up an injury during Sunday's 2-1 win over AS Roma that has ruled him out of this week's fixtures, with Milan struggling in his absence in a disappointing home draw with Udinese on Wednesday.
Having been top of the table for much of the season, Stefano Pioli's side have dropped off since the turn of the year, losing four of their 11 league matches in 2021.
Up against a Verona side unbeaten in their last four, including a draw against Juventus, Milan will have to dig deep without their top scorer to keep pace with Inter.
(Reporting by Peter Hall, editing by Ed Osmond)