Milan derby highlights big Serie A weekend

The Milan derby on Saturday could potentially decide which side wins Serie A, and that’s not the only big game in Italy this weekend.

Third-place Napoli, which is also still in the title hunt, faces fifth-place Lazio and sixth-place Roma hosts seventh-place Juventus in a matchup of two clubs desperate to get back into the Champions League.

To top it all off, there’s also the always heated Sicilian derby between Catania and Palermo.

Still, it’s the match at the San Siro that counts the most.

AC Milan holds a two-point lead over Inter Milan but is without suspended striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Boosted by its come-from-behind win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League, Inter is on a roll and aiming to take the lead from its city rival.

It’s a big turnaround from just a few months ago. When Leonardo was hired to replace Rafa Benitez as Inter’s manager during the winter break, Inter trailed Milan by 13 points.

"Entering the derby two points behind was one mission, and now we’re starting a new mission," Inter midfielder Dejan Stankovic said. "The derby can change an entire season, it gives us a chance to gain back something that was impossible three months ago."

Milan is on a three-match winless streak, having followed its elimination from the Champions League by Tottenham with a draw against Bari and a loss in Palermo.

"This derby is important but it’s not decisive, because afterward there will still be seven matches with 21 points up for grabs," Milan vice president Adriano Galliani said. "Whoever wins will have an advantage – it will be a significant lead if we win, a little less so if Inter does because they would go in front by just one point. But there’s also still Napoli and Udinese."

Milan leads the league with 62 points, followed by Inter with 60, Napoli with 59 and Udinese with 56.

As Galliani pointed out, Inter plays its penultimate match at Napoli and Milan finishes the season at Udinese.

"The season is going to be decided at the finish," Galliani said.

Ibrahimovic’s ban for punching Bari defender Marco Rossi in the stomach was reduced from three to two matches, but he’s still out this weekend, leaving the attack to Brazilian teammates Alexandre Pato and Robinho, plus Italy international Antonio Cassano. Andrea Pirlo is still likely out in midfield due to a right knee injury.

Ibrahimovic scored when Milan beat Inter 1-0 in the season’s opening derby in November.

For Leonardo, the derby will mark the first time he coaches against the team he managed last season and played with for five years.

Leonardo will also have to do without a key player, as defender Lucio is ruled out due to accumulated cards. Fellow center back Andrea Ranocchia appears ready to play again after getting released from Italy’s training camp with a knee injury, although Cristian Chivu has a calf problem.

While Diego Milito could return from injury and gain a spot on the bench, Inter’s attack should once again fall to Samuel Eto’o and Giampaolo Pazzini, who has scored six goals in 10 matches since transferring from Sampdoria in January.

Pazzini also scored three goals with Sampdoria against Milan over the past two years.

Inter midfielder Thiago Motta has also shown he’s in form, scoring in Italy’s 1-0 win over Slovenia in European Championship qualifying last week.

However, Inter might want to hold some of its players in reserve, with the opening leg of the Champions League quarterfinals against Schalke slated for three days after the derby.

Meanwhile, Lazio coach Edy Reja will also be facing his former squad this weekend.

Reja guided Napoli for five seasons between 2005-09, leading Diego Maradona’s former squad back up to Serie A from the third division.

Roma has a had a tumultuous week, dominated by negotiations for the sale of the club to a group of American investors led by Boston executive Thomas DiBenedetto, with the deal expected to be signed by mid-April.

Juventus captain Alessandro Del Piero was being examined for a leg muscle injury that occurred during training Thursday, possibly leaving the Turin club’s attack to Alessandro Matri and Luca Toni.

Also this weekend, it’s: Brescia vs. Bologna; Cesena vs. Fiorentina; Chievo Verona vs. Sampdoria; Genoa vs. Cagliari; Lecce vs. Udinese; and Parma vs. Bari.