Inter made to wait

LIKE a good thriller, the battle for the title in Italy has produced half a dozen twists with one episode left. Those left dangling over the cliff edge after yesterday’s games include both Milan clubs, after Inter could only draw 2-2 at home to Siena and Milan suffered a 3-1 defeat away to Napoli.

With Roma beating Atalanta 2-1, Inter’s lead at the top is down to a single point. Milan have dropped down to fifth place again, two points behind Fiorentina who regained the last Champions League qualifying place after beating Parma 3-1.

To add even more spice to the final day, Inter have to travel to Parma next week, while Roma go to Catania. Either Parma or Catania will be relegated. Parma trail Catania by two points and would stay up should they beat Inter and Catania lose to Roma. Moreover, Parma nearly pulled off a victory against Inter in San Siro back in January, being deprived of the points by two very questionable refereeing decisions. For Parma’s new coach Hector Cuper, once sacked by Inter, revenge would be especially sweet.

As for Milan, their season now hangs on the hopes they can beat Udinese – already qualified for the UEFA Cup – and Fiorentina lose at Torino, who have nothing to play for.

Of all yesterday’s games, Inter’s was the most agonising.

A goal up early on through Patrick Vieira, they led 2-1 at the break. Pulled back to 2-2, they stormed the Siena goal but nothing would go right for them. With 13 minutes Julio Cruz got free in the area but his shot was blocked by his own team-mate, Inter captain Marco Materazzi.

Moments later Inter were awarded a penalty. Materazzi decided to take it rather than Cruz and hit it straight at Siena’s Alex Manninger. The former Arsenal goalkeeper clutched the ball to his belly and Inter had blown the chance that would almost certainly have given them the title in front of their own fans.

Roma have just achieved their best-ever points total in Serie A, 81 from 37 games, and having thought they were out of contention – “We have one chance in a hundred” said coach Luciano Spalletti on Friday – now sense the chance of an historic triumph.

Breathless after the tense victory over Atalanta, and with pandemonium inside the Stadio Olimpico, midfielder Daniele De Rossi declared: “We’ll play right to the end – and hats off to the Siena players who have shown that fair play isn’t just an English thing.

“It will be 90 minutes of fire,” added captain Francesco Totti. “As for us we’ve nothing to lose, and we’ll wait for the verdict from Parma.”

Down in Naples, rueful Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti was drawing one positive conclusion after his side’s mauling and the rest of the day’s results: “It’s a positive sign for sport. All the matches are being played right to the end, and that makes it a more fascinating tournament.” Milan will be hoping Torino do the business for them next week, but their hopes of Champions League football next season are now hanging by a thread.

Le Championnat

AS in Italy, the title race in France will continue to the final match, but with a two-point lead Lyon remain strong favourites to retain the trophy and win their seventh consecutive title.

On Saturday, they dominated third-placed Nancy, although only winning 1-0, and Alain Perrin’s side will be confident of at least avoiding defeat at Auxerre next Saturday.

Bordeaux have to beat Lens to have any chance, and their opponents have only lost three at home this season.

Bordeaux coach Laurent Blanc was, however, happy after the 2-0 win against Sochaux: “At least we have pushed the champions.”


THE Dutch play-offs are nearing their conclusion, with Ajax still not assured of Champions League qualification despite finishing second to PSV.

On Saturday they lost 2-1 to Twente in the first leg of their play-off final. The return game is at the Amsterdam Arena next Sunday and Twente will have hopes of overcoming their famous opponents, having held them 2-2 in December.

In the UEFA Cup play-offs NEC, who finished in eighth place, are through to the final after a 4-1 aggregate win against Groningen. Their opponents are likely to be Heerenveen, who play NAC Breda tonight with a 2-0 advantage from their home leg.


THE race for second continues in Germany after wins for Werder Bremen and Schalke. Bremen have the edge going into the final day, not only because of a two-point lead but also because of an improved goal difference after thrashing Hannover 6-1. Behind them there are still four sides locked together on 51 points competing for two UEFA Cup places. Of these four Bayer Leverkusen face the toughest task with a home game against Bremen next Saturday. The surprise contenders are Wolfsburg, a young team who shocked last year’s champions Stuttgart with a 4-0 win on Saturday. Champions Bayern Munich beat Duisburg 3-2.

La Liga

FRANK RIJKAARD became the fall-guy for Barcelona’s traumatic season on Thursday when club president Joan Laporta announced the Dutch coach would be replaced by Pep Guardiola, one of the few Catalans who played in Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team, currently coach of the B side. The announcement came after the 4-1 humiliation to Real Madrid and a win for Villarreal that guaranteed second place. But there was even worse to come last night after Barcelona led Mallorca 2-0 at home, only to go down 3-2 in added time. Barca now have to win against relegated Murcia next weekend to be sure of finishing third ahead of Atletico Madrid.

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