Inter’s Scudetto charge continues against Napoli after Champions League pain

Inter Milan return to their Serie A title march with the visit of Napoli on Sunday night as both teams lick their wounds after painful eliminations from the Champions League.

Wednesday’s gutting penalty shoot-out defeat by Atletico Madrid was a huge blow to Inter, who as well as cruising to the league championship, were gunning for another deep run in Europe’s top club competition.

Last year’s losing finalists led after the first leg in Italy after missing a hatful of chances and then threw away a two-goal aggregate lead after going ahead in Madrid through Federico Dimarco.

The level of disappointment at the loss, the first match Inter didn’t win of 14 played in 2024 across all competitions, risks making an almost inevitable Scudetto triumph seem like an anti-climax.

Inter had looked like a true contender for the Champions League after dominating the first leg and the manner of defeat left a bitter taste for Italy’s champions-elect.

“We’re disappointed for the whole Inter family, but the boys should be proud of what they’ve done in this year’s Champions League,” insisted coach Simone Inzaghi.

“Tonight we should have done better in the key moments. We made a lot of mistakes and unfortunately in these matches that makes the difference.”

But there is still plenty to play for as with a 16-point lead over AC Milan with 10 games remaining Inter just need five more wins to seal the title and pip their local rivals to 20 league crowns.

Title victory could even come against Milan — who had their headquarters raided by police on Tuesday as part of an investigation of their 2022 sale to US fund RedBird — as next month’s derby is the fifth of Inter’s next five league fixtures.

That would not only rub their local rival’s faces in it, it would also allow Inter to equal Napoli and Juventus’ record of winning the championship with five games to spare.

Napoli are Inter’s only real test between now and the derby, and the champions’ bleak season took another bad turn with their elimination at the hands of a less-than stellar Barcelona.

Francesco Calzona’s side are seventh and 31 points behind Inter, while also trailing by seven Bologna, who continue their bid for a Champions League debut when they travel to struggling Empoli on Friday without injured star forward Joshua Zirkzee.

“It would be a great sign for Italian football,” said Bologna CEO Claudio Fenucci to public broadcaster RAI on Monday.

“It would show that… with organisation within the club, the right people in the set-up and a group of players who go beyond expectations you can do something different.”

Fourth-placed Bologna’s chances of reaching next year’s revamped Champions League will increase if Serie A holds its lead over the other big leagues in the race for a fifth place.

With no Italian teams left in this year’s edition with Inter and Napoli knocked out, Roma and Atalanta need to go far in the Europa League.

A fifth Champions League spot for Italy would be a big deal for that pair as they trail Bologna by three and four points respectively ahead of their matches with Fiorentina and Sassuolo on Sunday.

Player to watch: Dusan Vlahovic

Vlahovic returns from suspension for Juventus, who host Genoa at lunchtime on Sunday, after costing his team defeat at Napoli a fortnight ago.

Serbia striker Vlahovic was so perturbed by his missed chances in Naples that he apologised to supporters for his wayward finishing in a post-match interview.

Juve have won just one of their last seven matches and are 17 points behind Inter in third place after looking like serious title challengers at the turn of the year.

Key stats

5 – The number of wins Inter need to guarantee the title.

19 – Both Inter and Milan are locked on 19 league crowns.

Fixtures (times GMT)

Friday

Empoli v Bologna (1945)

Saturday

Monza v Cagliari, Udinese v Torino (1400), Salernitana v Lecce (1700), Frosinone v Lazio (1945)

Sunday

Juventus v Genoa (1130), Verona v AC Milan (1400), Atalanta v Fiorentina, Roma v Sassuolo (both 1700), Inter Milan v Napoli (1945)

AFP

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