Milan enter crucial period without Ibrahimovic
© AFP

Defending Italian champions AC Milan begin a crucial phase of their season when they travel to fourth-placed Udinese this weekend.

Star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic starts a three-match ban on Saturday in a period when second-placed Milan must play two other top-four teams. Following their trip to Udine, Milan will host Cesena and leaders Juve in successive league games at the San Siro.

It is a crucial period in which they will be missing their top scorer, especially with fellow forwards Alexandre Pato and Antonio Cassano also on the sidelines.

It means extra pressure will be put on the shoulders of Robinho, veteran Filippo Inzaghi, youngster Stephan El Shaarawy and new signing Maxi Lopez.

The latter three have hardly played for Milan this season while Robinho, the most used forward after Ibrahimovic, has managed a return of just three goals in 17 Serie A games.

Ibrahimovic is a fundamental player and it will be important to understand how the team will react to his absence.
Massimo Ambrosini, AC Milan captain

In fact he has only five goals in 24 games in all competitions and has come under fire for some shocking misses, including two in front of an open goal from inside the six yard box in successive games back in November. He also missed a one-on-one during last weekend's game with Napoli, firing wide of Morgan De Sanctis's post.

Milan captain Massimo Ambrosini acknowledges that the big Swede will be sorely missed, especially as he has scored more than double the amount of goals of all Milan's other strikers put together with 15 strikes.

"Ibrahimovic is a fundamental player and it will be important to understand how the team will react to his absence," he said. "However, last year we had some good performances without him."

The other issue is that Milan host Arsenal in the UEFA Champions League second round, first leg on Wednesday but Ambrosini insists they won't be taking their eyes off Udinese.

Milan are in a mini-slump with two defeats and a draw in their last three games in all competitions.

"What I'm concerned about is the game against Udinese, it's decisive because we need something different to change things around," said the captain. "We can't allow another match to pass without giving a certain sign."

If we still needed proof that we should believe in ourselves and aim to go all the way in all our objectives this season, then the night at the San Siro gives us even more knowledge of our capabilities.
Juventus captain Alessandro Del Piero

Milan trail Juventus by a point in the league, but having played a game more. Udinese are three points further back but many in Italy believe the title will come down to a shoot-out between the two traditional giants.

Juve, who travel to Bologna on Sunday, have a psychological advantage having beaten the champions twice already this season, including Wednesday's 2-1 Italian Cup semi-final, first leg success at the San Siro.

Juventus captain Alessandro Del Piero believes the game demonstrated his side are ready to go all the way this season, following successive seventh-place finishes.

"If we still needed proof that we should believe in ourselves and aim to go all the way in all our objectives this season, then the night at the San Siro gives us even more knowledge of our capabilities," he said on his personal website.

"It's not easy to beat a team like Milan at the San Siro and to do so in a two-legged elimination match is even more important, even though the fact it's over two legs means we're only halfway and still have to finish off the job at home."

In other games, Inter Milan will be looking to end a three-game winless streak at home to rock-bottom Novara, who have not won in ten games.