Juve, Milan prepare for scudetto showdown

April 28, 2006

ROME, April 28 (Reuters) - How priorities have changed for Italy's leading pair Juventus and AC Milan.

At the start of the season neither club made any secret of the fact that winning another Serie A title came second to their European ambitions.

However, after tumbling out of the Champions League -- Juventus in the last eight against Arsenal and Milan in the semi-finals against Barcelona -- both are desperate to win the scudetto and salvage at least one piece of silverware.

For the first time this season, Juve's place at the top of the division suddenly looks vulnerable, their recent faltering form giving Milan's players the hope of snatching the title in dramatic, late fashion.

Juve still lead on 82 points, but five draws in a row have allowed Milan to narrow the gap from 10 points to three with three matches left.

Having dominated the title race all season, the reigning champions run the risk of a repeat of the 1999-2000 championship when they frittered away a nine-point lead with eight matches remaining to lose the title to Lazio on the final day.

Juve's slump has become the most hotly-debated subject by Italian football fans.

Team coach Fabio Capello has taken his share of flak for his failure to rest his star players while Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic has also come in for heavy criticism for his recent off-colour performances.

The club's attempt to focus the energies of players and staff by forbidding them from talking to the press has failed to turn results around.

The only certainty now is that there is no such thing as an "easy" match for the Italian champions.

On Sunday they play Siena, a team they beat 2-0 earlier in the season, but who are not yet safe from relegation and who are bound to put up a fight.

Milan, meanwhile, host Livorno, who last week ended a seven-match losing streak with a 3-1 win over Palermo.

Milan will need a lift after their Champions League defeat, but coach Carlo Ancelotti has asked his players for maximum points in their remaining games in the hope that another Juve slip-up will hand them the title.

"However the season finishes, the balance is positive. Our job now is to finish strongly in Serie A. Anything can happen," Ancelotti was quoted as saying in La Gazzetta dello Sport on Thursday.

Marek Jankulovski is expected to take the place of Clarence Seedorf, who is suspended, while Alessandro Nesta returns from a muscle strain to bolster the defence.

In the other matches, Inter Milan -- safe in third place on 74 points -- take on Empoli.

Like the scudetto race, the battle between Fiorentina and AS Roma for the fourth and final Champions League berth looks set to go down to the wire.

On Sunday Fiorentina (68 points) travel to Palermo with a three-point lead over Roma, who take on Chievo Verona, currently seventh and pushing for a UEFA Cup place.