Second place race adds spice to Milan derby

April 13, 2006

MILAN, April 13 (Reuters) - AC Milan and Inter face each other in Friday's derby with both side's knowing the outcome could have a major effect on their European aims for next season.

Juventus are seven points clear at the top of Serie A and with just five games remaining second-placed Milan hold out little hope of catching the defending champions.

But with Inter just two points behind Milan, the derby offers Roberto Mancini's side the chance to overtake their rivals in the battle for the second automatic qualification spot for next season's Champions League.

Third and fourth place only offers a spot in the final qualifying round for Europe's premier club competition - meaning an early start to the season in August for one of the Milan clubs.

'We know well the difference between finishing second and third, above all in a summer with the World Cup finals,' said Milan captain Paolo Maldini.

'It will be really tough for whoever finishes third to have the time to prepare properly for the qualifying round,' added the defender who, having recovered full fitness, is expected to be back in the Milan starting line-up for the first time in over three months.

Milan have more immediate targets in Europe however with Tuesday's Champions League semi-final, first-leg match against Barcelona likely to influence coach Carlo Ancelotti's team selection.

Strikers Andriy Shevchenko and Filippo Inzaghi could start on the bench with Alberto Gilardino operating as a lone striker, while there could be changes in other areas of the side as Ancelotti protects some of his key players.

Inter have no such distractions - in terms of team selection at least - after they were knocked out of the Champions League by Villarreal in the quarter-finals.

That exit frees coach Roberto Mancini to field his strongest side but the manner of their defeat to the Spanish team has led to some bitterness at the club.

Inter players Javier Zanetti and Cristiano Zanetti were punched and kicked by a group of fans who had waited for the team at an airport following Saturday's win at Ascoli.

That victory and qualification for Italian Cup final after Inter eliminated Udinese on Tuesday have done little to reduce the pressure on Mancini's side ahead of the derby.

After another season in which they have failed to mount a credible challenge for the Serie A title - last won in 1989 - and their European campaign fizzled out, Inter badly need to restore at least some local pride in the derby as well as make a push for second place.