Inter switches focus to Serie A after European advancement
For the first time in 17 years, three Italian teams reached the Champions League quarterfinals. Now they will have to focus on ensuring they qualify for next season's competition in one of the tightest races for the top four in Serie A.
Napoli, Inter Milan and AC Milan have all reached the final eight of Europe's top club competition in a sort of redemption for Italian soccer after the national team again didn't qualify for the World Cup.
However, only Napoli seems assured of playing in the Champions League next season. The club, which reached the quarterfinals for the first time in its history, has an 18-point lead at the top of Serie A and is 21 points clear of fifth-place Roma.
Inter and Milan are second and fourth, respectively, but only three points separate second place from fifth place, with Atalanta also only five points further back.
In such a tight race, the teams know they can't afford any slipups — although all of them dropped points last weekend.
Milan has the easiest match on paper this weekend at Udinese, while Roma visits third-place Lazio in the capital derby.
Inter hosts Juventus in the derby d'Italia on Sunday, knowing that the Bianconeri could also be thrown into the mix for the Champions League spots.
Inter drew 0-0 at Porto on Tuesday to progress 1-0 on aggregate and also relieve a lot of the pressure on coach Simone Inzaghi after mixed results in the league. The Nerazzurri have won only two of their past five league matches, losing at Spezia and Bologna and drawing at Sampdoria.
"We know we've dropped too many points in the league. We've lacked consistency, especially against some of the smaller sides recently," Inter defender Matteo Darmian said after Tuesday's match. "Tonight, however, should give us a boost going forward. We'll celebrate today but, from tomorrow, we'll be fully focused on Sunday because it's another important game."
Juventus was hit with a massive 15-point penalty for false accounting at the beginning of the year but has recovered from that to win all but one of its six league matches since the start of February.
The Bianconeri are currently seventh but are appealing against the penalty and if they get those points back they would be three ahead of Inter.
"As for this moment, I always tell the lads that what they're doing is important," Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said. "On the field, we are second, and it's not a small thing, it's a sign of maturity, and we have to keep up the work."
It will be the first of three times in a month that Inter and Juventus meet. They also play each other in the two-legged Italian Cup semifinals. Juventus beat Inter 2-0 in their first league match this season.
Before this weekend's matches kick off, Napoli and the Milan teams will know their opponents in the next round of the Champions League. There are no further restrictions on teams from the same country facing each other so the two Milan sides could be pitted against each other, just like they were in the 2005 quarterfinals.
Milan advanced that time and went on to reach the final in Istanbul, where it lost on penalties to Liverpool after leading 3-0 at halftime.
This year's final will be held in that same stadium in Turkey.
"We are happy to have got here and we want to continue, we're not going to be satisfied," Inter CEO Giuseppe Marotta told Gazzetta dello Sport, turning his attention to a potential Champions League matchup. "The derby would be thrilling, emotional, appealing. Everyone would talk about it, it would get exposure worldwide. In Milan, you wouldn't talk about anything else.
"So it would be even better if this derby would be played in Istanbul in the final. That would really be historic. I'd really like to tell Milan, 'We'll see you in the final.'"