Rome: A Champions League spot will be on the line when second-place Napoli visit Mario Balotelli-less AC Milan on Sunday in Serie A. With seven rounds remaining in the Italian league, Napoli hold a four-point lead over Milan, with the top two finishers qualifying directly for the top European competition and the third-place finisher going into the final playoff round.
Balotelli will serve the first of a three-match suspension for insulting an official. Juventus, who were eliminated from the Champions League by Bayern Munich on Wednesday, hold a nine-point lead over Napoli and seems destined to win their 29th Serie A title. On Monday, Juventus visit fifth-place Lazio.
Also on Sunday, sixth-place Inter Milan face Cagliari in Trieste, where the Sardinian club is playing after abandoning their troubled Is Arenas stadium. Milan are planning to appeal Balotelli's ban, although he was already automatically suspended for the Napoli match after picking up his fourth booking of the season in a 2-2 draw with Fiorentina last weekend that ended Milan's four-match winning streak.
The Italy striker has scored 10 goals in 11 games for club and country in 2013 and has been the key to Milan's resurgence since transferring from Manchester City in January. The multi-match ban came for insulting one of the assistant referees at the end of the Fiorentina game, and it means Balotelli will also miss a visit to Juventus next week.
Former Italy forward Giampaolo Pazzini will likely replace Balotelli at center forward, with the reliable Stephan El Shaarawy on the left wing and either Kevin-Prince Boateng or M'Baye Niang on the right. El Shaarawy scored most of his 16 goals this season before Balotelli's arrival and his new strike partner's absence could provide a chance for him to break out of his relative scoring slump.
Meanwhile, Napoli will rely on its established forward trio of Edinson Cavani, Goran Pandev and Marek Hamsik as the southern club chases a second Champions League appearance in three seasons. Cavani leads Serie A with 22 goals.
Last season, Napoli reached the second round of the Champions League but then lost a close encounter with eventual champion Chelsea. Besides returning to the Champions League, Napoli also is still holding on to faint hopes of winning Serie A, which it says it won't give up until it is mathematically eliminated.
Napoli is also seeking its first big road win of the season, having lost at Juventus and Inter and drawn at Fiorentina and Lazio. Since Aurelio De Laurentiis purchased the squad in 2004 and saved it from bankruptcy, Napoli has never beaten Milan at the San Siro, drawing twice and losing three times.