Milan almost champions but fight for fourth continues

RESULTS Sat 23 Apr Roma 1-0 Chievo; Bologna 0-2 Cesena; Cagliari 1-2 Fiorentina; Internazionale 2-1 Lazio; Genoa 4-2 Lecce; Palermo 2-1 Napoli; Udinese 0-2 Parma; Bari 0-1 Sampdoria; Brescia 0-1 Milan; Juventus 2-2 Catania

AC Milan had lost the habit of winning the league title, but a barren period stretching back to 2004 is now almost over after a slender weekend win at Brescia took them eight points clear of Inter.

The Rossoneri, who have led the table since early November, could seal their 18th Scudetto next weekend with a home win over Bologna if Inter fail to win at Cesena. Even if Inter equal their neighbours' result, Milan could clinch the title with a draw as Rima the following weekend.

It would cap a remarkable first season in charge for Massimiliano Allegri, who has moulded the team into a solid and consistent outfit – if not a jaw-dropping pedigree compared to vintage Silvio Berlusconi teams.

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However, to be so far ahead with four games remaining is probably something not even dear old Silvio would have envisaged. In fact, until the early-April derby when Milan turned over the defending champions 3-0, it seemed that the momentum was with Leonardo’s men.

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It has been one of those seasons where Milan have been able to keep their heads while all around them their main rivals have been losing theirs. The match at Brescia this weekend was a case in point: having squandered chance after chance, wayward culprits Antonio Cassano and Robinho finally combined for the Brazilian to score the only goal of the game.

Alexandre Pato’s fragile hamstrings and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s recent disciplinary problems, which have seen the Swede sit out two three-game suspensions, have been circumnavigated by a squad numbering a healthy 31 players. Without the January arrivals of Cassano, Mark van Bommel and to some extent Urby Emanuelson, the team wouldn't now be in such a position where they can afford a dip in form.

Inter’s self-harming in the first half of the season – mishandling the Rafa Benitez appointment and subsequently failing to back their coach when the dressing room turned against the Spaniard – also helped send the Scudetto across the city.

Meanwhile, the failure of AS Roma and Juventus to mount a serious challenge left Napoli, Lazio and Udinese to take on the Milanese giants. The chase for the title is not for the faint-hearted and the aforementioned trio have been found wanting when it really mattered in recent weeks.

Napoli’s defeat at Palermo on the back of their home loss to Udinese last weekend has ended their faint hopes of sparking the sort of celebrations last seen in the Diego Maradona era, while Udinese crumbled at home against lowly Parma to undo all their hard work of winning in Naples.

Lazio demonstrated their own feet of clay: having been gifted the opportunity to record their first win at Inter since 1998, they failed to seize the moment.

Edy Reja's side were a goal up and a man up after Inter keeper Julio Cesar was red-carded for a last-man foul on Mauro Zarate and the Argentinian despatched the subsequent spot-kick. However, it was the home side who grabbed the initiative, showing some of that never-say-die spirit so much in evidence when Jose Mourinho was in charge.

Fighting back and then taking the lead with 10 men has done the power of good to Leonardo’s case to be retained as coach; a runners-up finish plus a place in the Italian Cup final should ensure that the Brazilian will be smoothly patrolling the touchline once again next season.

Leo will hope that Massimo Moratti provides funds for reinforcements rather than allow Wesley Sneijder to leave for Manchester United as the Italian sports press are sure in their belief will happen.

In some way the old order has been re-established with the Milan clubs first and second while Napoli should hold on to third spot – which leaves the fourth and final Champions League place still for grabs.

STATS Serie A table, results & fixtures

With Lazio and Udinese wobbling – and Juve pressing the self-destruct button against Catania where they led 2-0, missed a hatful of chances to be completely out of sight and were pegged back with the last kick of the game – Roma are suddenly back in the frame after their narrow win over Chievo.

Vincenzo Montella’s men have the easiest run-in, especially if Milan are already champions before the sides meet in two weeks. But having come so far, Lazio and Udinese’s fate is still in their own hands although they must now dig deep or face late heartbreak.

There may be no cliffhanger for the title but the chase for the final Champions League spot should keep us on the edge of our seats.