Juventus host Genoa on Sunday looking to take another step towards a 31st ‘scudetto’ as the battle to qualify for Europe resumes in earnest after a mitigated week of competition for Italy’s clubs.
Even in the absence of influential midfielder Paul Pogba, ruled out for nearly two months on Thursday with a thigh injury, the chances of Juve slipping up on their way to a fourth consecutive Serie A crown look slim.
With 11 games remaining, Massimiliano Allegri’s men hold a 14-point lead on a Roma side seemingly coming apart at the seams as evidenced by two morale-sapping home defeats in less than a week.
Roma’s failure to add to their sole victory in 10 league games has ended their title hopes, but it has injected life into the battle for the league’s second automatic qualifying spot for the Champions League, as well as the fight for Europa League places.
Roma began the season with a confident swagger but Rudi Garcia’s men visit Cesena on Sunday decidedly less confident.
A 2-0 defeat to Sampdoria at the Stadio Olimpico last week left Roma just one point ahead of city rivals Lazio, with Napoli a further three points adrift and Fiorentina and Sampdoria both only one point off third place.
Roma then suffered further ignominy in a 3-0 rout by Fiorentina in the second leg of their Europa League last 16 tie on Thursday.
Fiorentina went through to the quarter-finals 4-1 on aggregate and Roma’s irate fans responded as only angry Serie A fans know how: by demanding Roma’s ‘unworthy’ players to remove their shirts at the end of the game.
– Long-suffering –
Garcia admitted he was “mortified” but has dug his heels in, declaring: “Now, there’s only one thing to do: concentrate on the championship and save second spot. Only qualification for the Champions League is acceptable now.”
Lazio coach Stefano Pioli, meanwhile, is basking in his side’s emergence as potential runners-up to Juventus.
The Roman side are on a winning run of five games and host Verona at the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday intent on keeping it going.
“We’ve always believed we could finish among the top three,” said Brazilian starlet Felipe Anderson, who hit a brace in a 2-0 win at Torino last week.
“At the start of the season we struggled a little, we couldn’t win. But we kept faith with our game, we’ve always believe in ourselves and we now we want to finish as high as we can.”
Lazio’s long-suffering fans finally have the chance to lampoon Roma, and Pioli said: “Now, anything is possible. It is time we really start to believe in ourselves, enough with being modest.
“We fully deserve being in this position and we have to aim even higher.”
Goal-shy Napoli, meanwhile, are looking to end a run of three games without a win but host Atalanta, buoyed by a scoreless draw at Dinamo Moscow which allowed them to join Fiorentina in the Europa League last eight, in the process qualifying for the last eight of a European competition for the first time since 1989.
But while Lazio have scored 12 goals in their last five league games, Napoli have scored only five and Rafael Benitez taunted his misfiring side after a 2-0 defeat at Verona on Sunday.
“Obviously we’re not capable of consistency, we’re probably still too young a side to be competitive across all competitions,” said the Spaniard.
“It means we have to work even more to make sure we’re in prime condition for our next game.”
Elsewhere, AC Milan host Cagliari on Sunday looking for only their third win in 12 games as their battle for a place in Europe continues.
The seven-time European champions are 10th, 29 points behind Juventus and 14 behind third-placed Lazio.
Inter Milan, ousted from the Europa League by Wolfsburg following the Germans’ 2-1 win at the San Siro, are two points ahead of their city rivals but face a tough trip to Sampdoria.
Fixtures (all times GMT)
Chievo v Palermo (1700), AC Milan v Cagliari (1945)
Empoli v Sassuolo (1130), Juventus v Genoa (1400), Cesena v Roma, Lazio v Verona, Napoli v Atalanta, Parma v Torino, Sampdoria v Inter, Udinese v Fiorentina (all 1945)
– Agence France-Presse