Rome (AFP) – Mauro Icardi’s ongoing contract dispute with Inter Milan shows no sign of abating as the Italian team crashed out of the Europa League in his absence on Thursday before this weekend’s key derby showdown against city rival’s AC Milan at the San Siro.
Both sides are battling for Champions League football next season with Gennaro Gattuso’s AC Milan in third, one point ahead of Inter, who occupy the final elite European qualifying spot.
Icardi’s dramatic injury-time winner snatched a 1-0 win for Inter Milan in the reverse fixture last October.
But the Argentine — joint top scorer in Serie A last season with 29 goals — has not played since February 9 amid a contract dispute which resulted in him being stripped of the captain’s armband.
The 26-year-old, who has scored 15 goals for the club this season, has complained of a knee injury but the club say a scan has not revealed any new injury.
In his absence Inter have won two of four league games, and crashed out of the Europa League on Thursday 1-0 on aggregate to visitors Eintracht Frankfurt.
Champions League qualification is now Inter’s only objective, as they are 25 points behind leaders Juventus.
“We came up short in all areas,” said coach Luciano Spalletti. “We certainly need to do better than we did tonight (against Milan),” he added.
“We need more confidence. We’ll look back over this match and recognise we didn’t read it the right way.”
They face a tough battle against on fire AC Milan, inspired by new Polish striker Krzysztof Piatek, who have won five league games on the trot.
Piatek has scored eight goals in nine games since joining Milan from Genoa last January as Gattuso’s side are on track for the Champions League for the first time since 2014.
– Ronaldo back on domestic duty –
Title-holders Juventus return to domestic duty against Genoa, looking to build on their 18-point advantage on top of the table, days after Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat-trick rescued their Champions League campaign.
Firmly on track for an eighth consecutive Scudetto, Juventus are distantly followed by Napoli, who host Udinese, days after falling 3-1 to Salzburg in the Europa League.
Carlo Ancelotti’s southerners still qualified for the quarter-finals of the second-tier European tournament which is their only hope of a trophy this season, 4-3 on aggregate.
“In Serie A we certainly are not in a comfortable position,” conceded Ancelotti, who are six points ahead of AC Milan.
“We had a setback against Sassuolo (1-1 last weekend) and need to be vigilant, as if we can’t have first place, we should at least hold on to second.”
Claudio Ranieri’s Roma can profit from the Milan sides neutralising each other as they target the Champions League.
Ranieri got off to a winning start with a 2-1 win over Empoli after taking over after Eusebio Di Francesco wsa sacked following their Champions League flop.
Roma are fifth, three points adrift of Inter.
A win over SPAL — two points above the relegation zone — would keep the Romans in the chase for elite European football next season.
“When I joined the team was coming off the back of two consecutive defeats, with lots of players out,” said the 67-year-old Ranieri.
“My message to them is ‘play without fear’.”
Europa League hopefuls Atalanta host bottom club Chievo with Lazio at home against Parma and Sampdoria away at Sassuolo before the international break.
New Empoli coach Aurelio Andreazzoli’s first game back four months after being sacked will at home against relegation rivals Frosinone.
Fixtures (all times GMT)
Cagliari v Fiorentina
Sassuolo v Sampdoria (1400GMT), SPAL V AS Roma (1700), Torino v Bologna (1930)
Genoa v Juventus (1130GMT), Atalanta v Chievo, Empoli v Frosinone, Lazio v Parma (all 1400), Napoli v Udinese (1700), AC Milan v Inter Milan (1930)
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