MILAN: The fall-out from Gonzalo Higuain’s four-match ban will overshadow Serie A this weekend, when the Argentine striker and his Napoli team-mates will be glued to a crucial San Siro clash between AC Milan and Juventus.
Sitting three points behind Juventus before last week’s games, Napoli’s bid for a first Serie
A title in 26 years looks to be in tatters following a shock 3-1 defeat at Udinese that saw Higuain lose the plot after being shown a red card.
Higuain pushed and insulted referee Massimiliano Irrati and had to be restrained by teammates before being dragged off the pitch.
His moment of madness led to a four-match ban and, with Juventus now six points in front, will be seen as a pivotal moment in Napoli’s title quest.
Although Napoli are set to appeal what they regard as an “unfair sanction”, their best hopes now lie with Juventus slipping up along the way as they look to secure a fifth consecutive title.
But the champions are on an unbeaten run of 21 games, and defender Andrea Barzagli believes Juve’s strength and belief will prevail. A win would allow coach Massimilano Allegri to walk away victorious from the club that sacked him in January 2014.
“Winning at Milan would be a big step towards the title. We will have one less game to play and be even closer to our objective,” Barzagli told juventus.com.
“In recent years we’ve become a stronger side thanks to our belief and to the hard work we’ve put in, so we feel like we deserve our place in the table.
“But our feet are firmly on the ground.”
A 21st win in 22 games would take Juve’s lead over Napoli to a morale-sapping nine points a day before Maurizio Sarri’s men host basement side Verona at the San Paolo.
But Milan haven’t surrendered yet, and Napoli’s players will be praying the Rossoneri cause an upset with a home win that would reignite the title race and boost Milan’s Europa League hopes.
Milan are currently 24 points behind Juventus, 14 off the last Champions League spot and six behind Inter Milan, who occupy the last Europa League spot.
The pressure on coach Sinisa Mihajlovic increased after last week’s 2-1 defeat at Atalanta, meaning Milan have taken only two points from their last four games.
It is hardly what you expect from a club that have been European champions seven times, but struggling to qualify for the Champions League is now the reality for Rossoneri fans.
Meanwhile, captain and midfielder Riccardo Montolivo says the club, and the players, are fully behind the boss.
“The team is and always will be behind Mihajlovic. I know him better than anyone else here, and when he’s under pressure that’s when you get the best out of him,” said Montolivo.
“Together, we’re working hard to get out of a sticky situation. It will be a tough game on Saturday, but we’ll be a different side when we go out on the pitch.”
Milan will have one eye on Inter’s visit to Frosinone earlier on Saturday, although Roberto Mancini’s men are expected to prevail at the league strugglers having won the corresponding fixture 4-0 earlier this season.
Higuain will serve the first match of his ban on Sunday, when Manolo Gabbiadini should step into the centre of Sarri’s three-pronged attack alongside Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon.
Anything less than a win against a Verona side that has been rooted to the bottom most of the campaign would likely spark early title celebrations in Turin.
It would also boost Roma’s hopes of overtaking Napoli and clinching the league’s second automatic Champions League qualifying spot.
Roma are third but only four points behind Napoli before hosting Bologna on Monday.