Milan (AFP) – A Keita Balde five-minute hat-trick in a 6-2 romp over Palermo boosted Lazio’s Europa League hopes Sunday as AC Milan edged further away from Europe with a shock 2-1 home defeat to Empoli.
Inspired by Atalanta’s 3-2 win over Bologna that pushed the high-flying Bergamo side up to fourth, Lazio responded to the challenge from Gian Piero Gasperini’s men in defiant fashion at the Stadio Olimpico.
A Ciro Immobile brace had Lazio up 2-0 inside 10 minutes and a Balde hat-trick in the space of five first-half minutes, including a 24th minute penalty, secured the points well before the half-time interval.
Palermo hit back with a second-half brace from Andrea Rispoli, but Luca Crecco wrapped up an emphatic win with a goal in the first minute of added-on time to secure a 19th league win and a return to fourth spot.
Lazio reduced the gap on third-placed Napoli, held 2-2 at Sassuolo, to seven points.
“The lads did great, what I liked most is how they put into practice what we’d spoke about,” said Lazio coach Simone Inzaghi.
Balde is rumoured to be leaving Lazio, and Inzaghi added: “He’s a real important player for us.”
Atalanta are back in fifth spot at one point further behind with AC Milan, who saw Spanish forward Suso miss a second-half penalty, still in sixth but now five points behind the Europa League places.
A week after snatching a share of the spoils with a late equaliser in a 2-2 derby draw at Inter, Milan had the incentive of breaking away from their city rivals following their shock 5-4 defeat at Fiorentina on Saturday.
But on their return to the San Siro as hosts, the seven-time European champions showed few credentials worthy of the European stage against a team battling for top flight survival.
Milan defender Cristian Zapata let Levan Mchedlidze get in front of him to nod Empoli’s opener in the 40th minute.
– Fumbled –
After Suso’s 59th minute spot-kick was stopped by Lukasz Skorupski, striker Carlos Bacca spurned a great chance to level from close range after Skorupski fumbled a corner.
It proved costly as Empoli doubled their lead moments later, veteran striker Massimo Maccarone coolly knocking down a cross for Mame Thiam, who was left unmarked to blast past Gianluigi Donnarumma from 10 yards.
Gianluca Lapadula reduced the arrears with a great run from midfield that saw him fire past Skorupski into the bottom corner on 72 minutes.
But Milan failed to capitalise on further chances from Lucas Ocampos and Mario Pasalic and were lucky to escape further punishment when Donnarumma denied Maccarone with a fine one-handed save then stopped Thiam after rushing out his net in the dying seconds of a seven-minute period of stoppages.
After offering Empoli, his former club at the start of his career, his “compliments”, Milan coach Vincenzo Montella said: “We missed a great chance to boost our Europa chances, but we can’t start throwing blame around.
“We created a lot of chances, it’s just a pity. It means we have to fight until the very last game.”
The win left Empoli fourth from bottom but five points ahead of Crotone, and Maccarone said: “We didn’t really concede much to Milan, so we’re very happy to be taking this victory home with us.
“When you’re in a negative period it affects your confidence, so it’s nice to win again. It’s even more special at the San Siro, for me the most beautiful stadium in Europe.”
Crotone gave their survival hopes a boost with a defiant 2-1 win at Sampdoria, who saw Czech starlet Patrik Schick turn on the style to hit a superb 20th minute opener.
Juventus host Genoa later Sunday hoping to avenge their 3-1 defeat at the Luigi Ferraris earlier in the campaign and stretch their lead over Roma, in second, to 11 points.
Roma are away at Pescara on Monday.