ROME (Reuters) - Two of Italy’s most decorated clubs, AC Milan and Juventus, face off on Sunday in a game that could prove crucial for their respective ambitions of winning Serie A and qualifying for the Champions League.
Milan’s hopes of taking the league crown off rivals Inter were dealt a big blow when they fell to a surprising and controversial 2-1 defeat to lowly Spezia on Monday.
Referee Marco Serra failed to play advantage when Junior Messias curled home a stoppage-time goal, instead blowing for a foul to Milan two seconds before the ball hit the net, and the visitors then clinched victory in the 96th minute.
Serra and the Italian Referees’ Association later apologised for the mistake, but it left Stefano Pioli’s incensed side second and two points behind leaders Inter, who have a game in hand.
The Rossoneri’s title challenge now faces a critical fortnight, with in-form Juventus visiting San Siro in Milan's final game before a top-of-the-table Milan Derby clash with Inter.
Defeat could prove extremely damaging for Milan; it could leave them third behind Napoli, who are currently two points behind and host bottom side Salernitana on Sunday, and five adrift of Inter, who host struggling Venezia on Saturday.
Fifth-placed Juventus are on an eight-match unbeaten run in Serie A and sit one point behind Atalanta in the final Champions League qualification spot, a placing that coach Massimiliano Allegri has set as Juve's objective for the season.
“It’s not good for Milan, they face the worst possible opponents. Juve aren’t great to watch but they have become a team to fear recently, concrete and solid,” former Milan player Massimo Orlando told TMW.
Although Allegri’s side are in great form, they have also faced their fair share of controversy recently.
Talks over star striker Paulo Dybala’s contract, which expires at the end of the season, have dragged on and the Argentina international pointedly glared at the Juve directors instead of celebrating after scoring in a 2-0 win over Udinese on Saturday.
The 28-year-old has been linked with a move to Juve’s fierce rivals Inter on a free transfer, something Nerazzurri director Giuseppe Marotta wouldn’t rule out.
“We must be ambitious and go looking for players who can raise the bar,” he said when asked about interest in Dybala.
The striker scored again in a midweek 4-1 Coppa Italia victory over Sampdoria and this time did celebrate, his third goal in the last four games in all competitions.
There is another big game in Rome on Saturday night when Maurizio Sarri’s eighth-placed Lazio take on Atalanta, looking to keep their slim top-four hopes alive.
Seven points separates the two clubs, although Atalanta have a game in hand, and the Bergamo club are trying to keep pace with the top three as they currently sit four points behind Napoli in third.
At the other end of the table, Genoa coach Alexander Blessin makes his debut against Udinese and Marco Giampaolo marks his return as Sampdoria coach with a relegation six-pointer at Spezia.
(Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie; Editing by Toby Davis)