Milan enter crucial period without Ibrahimovic
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 on Saturday 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 on Sunday, 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.
Juve captain Alessandro Del Piero believes that game demonstrated his side are ready to go all the way this season, following successive seventh-placed finishes.
"If we still needed proof that we should believe in ourselves and aim to go all the way in all our objectives this season, then the night at the San Siro gives us even more knowledge of our capabilities," he said on his personal website.
"It's not easy to beat a team like Milan at the San Siro and to do so in a two-legged elimination match is even more important, even though the fact it's over two legs means we're only halfway and still have to finish off the job at home."
In other games, Inter Milan will be looking to end a three-game winless streak at home to rock-bottom Novara, who have not won in 10 games.
Udinese v Milan (1700 GMT), Cagliari v Palermo (1945 GMT)
Sunday (1400 GMT unless stated)
Atalanta v Lecce, Catania v Genoa, Inter v Novara, Parma v Fiorentina, Bologna v Juventus (1945 GMT)
Monday (1945 GMT)
Napoli v Chievo, Siena v Roma
Lazio 3 (Hernanes 52, Lulic 60, Kozak 63) Cesena 2 (Mutu 13, Iaquinta 34-pen)
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