Roma, Milan pray for Sampdoria favour
Title hopefuls Roma and AC Milan will be hoping in-form Sampdoria can do them a favour and blow Serie A wide open by beating league leaders Inter Milan this weekend.
Early pace-setters Sampdoria have won their last four matches in a row and are level on points with fourth-placed Napoli in the fight for UEFA Champions League football next season. In a peculiar season, Sampdoria seem to have overcome their long mid-season blip and are looking again like the compact and threatening unit that stood shoulder to shoulder with Inter for the first seven games of the campaign.
Since the Genoa club's drop in form, however, no team has managed to hold onto Inter's coat-tails and the four-in-a-row champions lead the championship by seven points. It could have been more were it not for the fine form of Claudio Ranieri's Roma, who rose from the cusp of the relegation zone to second place in Serie A on the back of a 20-match unbeaten run in all competitions that ended in a 3-2 defeat at Panathinaikos in the UEFA Europa League on Thursday.
When they faced Inter at the San Siro 12 games into this season there were already 14 points between the pair but that gap has now been halved and every obstacle between the two teams has been surpassed. Roma host lowly Catania on Sunday, when the home fans will fully expect success against a side with only two wins on their travels all season - one away to Juventus - and who sit a single point above the drop zone.
Roma host Inter at the end of March and Brazilian centre-back Juan says the capital-based club need to close the gap even further ahead of that game. "Playing them at home is an advantage, especially considering that we've never been at full strength this season," he said.
"For example if (Luca) Toni is fit, (Francesco) Totti is absent and vice-versa. Soon we'll have more options and maybe we'll get even better."
Roma may be hoping for a favour from Sampdoria, but the Genovese have not travelled well this season, losing seven from 13 and being hammered 5-1 at Juve and losing 3-0 against both Genoa and Milan. But despite an injury to playmaker Antonio Cassano, Sampdoria have been a better side recently and have won four on the trot, including their last two away matches.
It gives them hope, although it will be a tall order as only two teams - Roma and Bari - have escaped from the San Siro with a point against Inter this season. It's not just Roma chasing the champions, as Milan are also still in the mix ahead of their trip to Bari, nine points behind the leaders but with a game in hand.
However, they have won only one of their last six, including Tuesday's 3-2 home loss to Manchester United in the Champions League. Veteran Dutch midfielder Clarence Seedorf says the Rossoneri need to learn to win ugly sometimes.
"This season we need to be nastier in going in search of victory, we can't always play pretty football, we need to be effective" he said. "Now it's back to the league and we know how to react to this loss, we can't wait for Bari."
Meanwhile, struggling Juventus take a trip to Bologna, who are unbeaten in their last six. Alberto Zaccheroni earned his first win in charge of Juve at home to Genoa last weekend and followed it up with a 2-1 victory at Dutch giants Ajax in the first leg of their UEFA Europa League last-32 tie on Thursday.