AC Milan’s rise mirrors Inter’s decline in Serie A

              FILE - In this Saturday, March 2, 2019 file photo, AC Milan's Krzysztof Piatek, foreground, and Sassuolo's Merih Demiral vie for the ball during their Serie A soccer match at the San Siro stadium in Milan, Italy. Just five months after beating AC Milan a derby defeat could leave crisis-hit Inter Milan in danger of missing out on the Champions League. Icardi scored a stoppage-time winner in the October derby but he has not played in more than a month, since being stripped off his captaincy amid protracted contract negotiations. Icardi's downfall and Krzysztof Piatek's arrival at Milan from Genoa means the two sides approach the second derby of the season in very different moods to the first. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno, File )

MILAN (AP) — AC Milan’s rise over the past few months has been mirrored by Inter Milan’s decline.

As the two sides approach the second derby of the season, they are in vastly different moods from the first.

Back then, Inter captain Mauro Icardi scored a stoppage-time winner to put Inter in third place, six points behind Serie A leader Juventus. Milan dropped to 12th place.

Now, Milan has soared up to third place in the standings, a point above its city rival. Inter, on the other hand, is in fourth and has won only one of its past three league matches.

And Icardi is unlikely to play this time.

The Argentine forward has not been on the field in more than a month, since being stripped off his captaincy amid protracted contract negotiations. The 26-year-old Icardi has said he has a knee injury, although the club has said that tests have not revealed any particular problem.

“His absence over the past few weeks means that he’s not at full fitness, however, these are things that the coach will eventually consider,” Inter CEO Giuseppe Marotta said when asked if Icardi would be available for the derby. “We must remain calm and manage things rationally. It would be a great failure if we would have to go through legal means.”

Milan’s turnaround can at least partly be attributed to Krzysztof Piatek. The Poland forward has scored eight goals since arriving from Genoa in January. But shoring up the defense has also been crucial.

Alessio Romagnoli, who was partly to blame for Icardi’s goal last time, has been touted as the future of the Italian national team’s defense. He was handed the Milan captaincy at the start of the season when he was only 24.

“I really like him as a captain. He’s a focused and solid guy and he shows that with his behavior,” said former Milan captain Franco Baresi, who helped the team win six Serie A titles and three European Cups as a defender as well as winning the World Cup with the Italy.

“It’s not by coincidence that he’s thought highly of by everyone, teammates, coach and club. His skills were evident right from the start, mental and technical. It was right to give the captain’s armband to him. Imposing oneself at Milan at his age is not easy.”

Piatek and Romangnoli, who turned 25 in January, could be leading Milan back into the Champions League after a five-year absence.

Inter still has a chance, too, but a loss for on Sunday coupled with a Roma victory at relegation-threatened Spal would leave the two teams level on points, closely followed by a number of other sides.

The top four from Serie A qualify for next season’s Champions League.