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Stuttering Milan suffer European setback

Rome (AFP) – AC Milan’s hopes of a return to European football next season suffered a setback Sunday when they were held to a 1-1 draw at Serie A’s bottom side Pescara.

The dropped points left Vincenzo Montella’s squad in seventh place in the table, two places and four points adrift of the final Europea League qualifying spot.

The seven times European champions only had themselves to blame after defender Gabriel Paletta’s rash back pass and a blunder by goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma combined to gift the side propping up the top flight a 12th-minute lead.

And although Croatian midfielder Mario Pasalic equalised three minutes before the interval, Montella’s men could not produce a winner on a day when close rivals Atalanta were thrashing Genoa 5-0 on their own ground.

It was a lacklustre performance that underlined the need for major investment in the squad if Milan are to relive their glory days under new Chinese owners who are expected to complete their takeover of Silvio Berlusconi’s club this month.

Atalanta, who are enjoying their best season yet in Serie A,  leapfrogged Inter Milan into fifth spot ahead of Inter’s Monday night clash with Sampdoria.

Argentine striker Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez was again the visitors’ hero, notching a hat-trick to take his tally for the season to 14 league goals.

Roma had kept their title hopes alive on Saturday, thanks to the record-breaking exploits of Bosnian striker Edin Dzeko.

The former Manchester City forward, who struggled initially to make an impact in Italy, scored twice in a 2-0 win over struggling Empoli that left Luciano Spalletti’s side five points adrift of leaders Juventus, who were due to face third-placed Napoli on Sunday evening.

The showdown in Naples is set to be a highly-charged affair with former Napoli idol Gonzalo Higuain making his first return in a Juventus shirt.

Victory for Juve would, in most pundits view, virtually wrap up a sixth consecutive title for the Turin giants.

Dzeko’s brace on Saturday took his tally for the season to 33 goals in all competitions – eclipsing the previous club record jointly held by veteran captain Francesco Totti and two other Roma legends.

Spalletti said Dzeko was having an exceptional season.

“He is a very strong player, of the kind we have always looked for. Before there was only Totti, now we also have him who can deliver these kind of numbers.”

Dzeko’s goals saw him pass Totti’s best return, in the 2006-07 season, which matched the totals registered by Austrian Rudolf Volk in 1930-31 and Argentine striker Pedro Manfredini in 1960-61.

The 31-year-old has scored 23 league goals, eight in the Europa League and two in the Italian Cup.

Lazio boosted their hopes of Champions League football next season by coming from behind to snatch a 2-1 win at struggling Sassuolo that leaves them fourth, three points adrift of Napoli, who currently occupy Italy’s final qualifying spot for Europe’s elite competition.

A late own goal by Sassuolo defender Francesco Acerbi gave Simone Inzaghi’s side all three points after Ciro Immobile’s 18th league goal of the season cancelled out Domenico Berardi’s penalty opener for the home side.

The win was a tactical coup for Inzaghi with all three of his substitutes having a role in the move that led to the 83rd-minute winner in the first of three matches in eight days that could define the Roman club’s season.

On Tuesday, Inzaghi’s men will defend a 2-0 first-leg advantage in their Italian Cup semi-final clash with local rivals Roma before hosting Napoli at the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday.

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