ROME: Defending Italian champions AC Milan begin a crucial phase of their season when they travel to third-placed Udinese this weekend.
Star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic starts a three-match ban today in a period when second-placed Milan must play the other two top three teams.
Following their trip to Udine, Milan will host Cesena and leaders Juve in successive league games at the San Siro.
It is a crucial period in which to be missing their best player and top scorer, especially with fellow forwards Pato and Antonio Cassano also on the sidelines.
It means extra pressure being piled on the shoulders of misfiring Brazilian Robinho, veteran Filippo Inzaghi, youngster Stephan El Shaarawy and new signing Maxi Lopez.
The latter three have hardly played for Milan this season while Robinho, the most used forward after Ibrahimovic, has managed a paltry return of just three goals in 17 Serie A games.
In fact he has only five goals in 24 games in all competitions and has come under fire for some shocking misses, including two in front of an open goal from inside the six yard box in successive games back in November. He also missed a one-on-one during last weekend’s game with Napoli, firing wide of Morgan De Sanctis’s post.
Milan captain Massimo Ambrosini acknowledges that the big Swede, who with 15 in the league has scored more than double the number of goals as all Milan’s other strikers put together, will be sorely missed.
“Ibrahimovic is a fundamental player and it will be important to understand how the team will react to his absence,” he said.
“However, last year we had some good performances without him.”
The other issue is that Milan host Arsenal in the Champions League second round, first leg on Wednesday but Amrosini insists they won’t be taking their eyes off Udinese.
Milan are in a mini-slump with two defeats and a draw in their last three games in all comeptitions.
“What I’m concerned about is the game against Udinese, it’s decisive because we need something different to change things around,” said the captain.
“We can’t allow another match to pass without giving a certain sign.”
Milan trail Juve by a point in the league, but having played a game more. Udinese are three points further back but many in Italy believe the title will come down to a shoot-out between the two traditional giants.
And Juve, who travel to Bologna tomorrow, have a psychological advantage having beaten the champions twice already this season, including Wednesday’s 2-1 Italian Cup semi-final, first leg success at the San Siro. — AFP