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Milan on brink of historic title as thrilling season heads down to the wire


Milan (AFP) – Europe’s most dramatic title race will finally reach its climax on Sunday when AC Milan take the field at Sassuolo ready to end an 11-year Scudetto drought and announce their return to the top table.

Stefano Pioli’s side are two points ahead of reigning champions Inter Milan and only need to draw to claim their first league crown since 2011, and they look almost guaranteed to do so after a hugely impressive run-in.

Consecutive wins over tricky opponents Lazio, Fiorentina and Verona were followed up by last weekend’s 2-0 home victory over Atalanta, after which a packed San Siro celebrated as though the title was already theirs.

Pioli has an almost full squad to pick from against a team which beat Milan 3-1 earlier in the season and will have the backing of an estimated 18,000 fans at the Mapei Stadium in Reggio Emilia for a title party which will then spill back into Milan.

The problem is where they will be able to celebrate. Milan’s iconic Piazza del Duomo is where fans gather for triumphs but on Saturday night the square hosts a concert and a huge stage has been erected which cannot be completely taken down before the end of Sunday’s matches.

As of Thursday afternoon there was still no confirmed plan from the city’s public order bodies of when and where to hold celebrations, as the only other viable location is the San Siro and that will be where over 70,000 Inter fans will party should Milan fail at the last.

Inter coach Simone Inzaghi still believes that his team can snatch the title and the 46-year-old has experience with last-day drama, pipping Juventus to the title 22 years ago when a Lazio player.

Two points behind Juve heading into the final weekend, Inzaghi was a scorer in Lazio’s 3-0 win over Reggina which left his team top while fans waited anxiously in the stands for news from Perugia.

A powerful storm had caused Juve’s match there to be halted and when it restarted over an hour later Alessandro Calori scored Perugia’s winner at the start of the second half, causing Lazio fans to pour into the streets of Rome to celebrate their second league title.

“We need to win and hope that they lose. But it’s happened before and in football you can never take anything for granted,” Inzaghi said last weekend.

The season won’t even be over once the title is decided, as while either Milan or Inter fans celebrate overcoming their local rivals Salernitana and Cagliari will be battling it out to avoid the drop.

Davide Nicola’s Salernitana are two points above Cagliari, who sit just inside the drop zone, and realistically must beat Udinese if they are to stay up after only getting out of the bottom three for the first time this season earlier in May.

Cagliari are at Venezia — bottom and already relegated — and will finish above Salernitana should the two teams finish level on points thanks to Giorgio Altare’s 99th minute leveller in Salerno a fortnight ago.

Altare’s bullet header means the two sides have an equal head-to-head record, so Cagliari’s superior goal difference would keep them up and send Salernitana down.

Player to watch – Rafael Leao

Portugal forward Leao has stepped up to become one of Milan’s key players this season and has been hugely important in the run-in.

The 22-year-old has either scored or set up a goal in every one of Milan’s five straight wins which have guided them towards the title and opened the scoring last week to calm home supporters’ nerves.

He is set to extend his deal with Milan — which expires in 2024 — in the summer as some of Europe’s biggest clubs circle the exciting winger.

Key stats

1 – Milan need a draw from their match to secure the title after coming out on top in their derbies with Inter.

10 – The number of weeks Milan have been top at the end of each matchday.

Fixtures (times GMT)

Friday

Torino v Roma (1845)

Saturday

Genoa v Bologna (1515), Atalanta v Empoli, Fiorentina v Juventus, Lazio v Verona (all 1845)

Sunday

Spezia v Napoli (1030), Inter Milan v Sampdoria, Sassuolo v AC Milan (both 1600), Salernitana v Udinese, Venezia v Cagliari (1900)

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