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Football: Crunch time for Napoli as scudetto race heats up

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The battle for the Serie A scudetto and three coveted Champions League places reaches a potential turning point this weekend when the Italian league's top four sides meet in the space of two days.

Napoli, who sit six points behind leaders Juventus after their scoreless draw away to Udinese on Monday, host the Turin giants on Friday hoping to relaunch a title bid which has stuttered all season.

On Saturday Lazio -- who sit in third 11 points off the pace -- travel to an AC Milan side which has fought its way back to challenge for a top three place that could guarantee Champions League football next season.

Although the rest of the programme will be played on Sunday, of particular interest will be Inter Milan's visit to a Catania team whose recent purple patch has left them in seventh place.

Napoli had been hoping for the attendance of former striker Diego Maradona on Friday to bring the same kind of fortune as it did in 1987 and 1990 when the Argentine legend led them to their sole league titles.

However Maradona -- who travelled to Italy in a bid to plead with the authorities over millions in unpaid taxes -- on Thursday flew out to Dubai.

"I don't know if I'll be back for the Napoli v Juve game," Maradona told reporters at the airport on Tuesday.

Whether his decision not to attend is a portent of what's to come for Napoli is anyone's guess. But Napoli coach Walter Mazzarri says it is futile beating Juve if his side go on to drop points elsewhere.

"There's no point in us beating Juventus and losing our concentration and dropping points to Chievo," added the 51-year-old.

Defeat for Napoli would hand Juventus a nine-point lead, but with Juventus poised to qualify for the quarter-finals of the Champions League, following a last 16 first leg defeat of Celtic (3-0), Bianconeri coach Antonio Conte is wary of a late title charge from his closest rivals.

Napoli were knocked out of the Europa League last week and are no longer in contention for the Italian Cup they won last season.

"Napoli still have a chance of winning the title, it's the only objective they've got left this season," said Conte.

Lazio's hold on third place, meanwhile, is under threat to an AC Milan side still floating on the euphoria of their famous 2-0 Champions League win over Barcelona last week.

The visitors ended a run of five games without a win on Monday with a morale-boosting 2-0 victory over Pescara, complete with two strikes that have been talked of as candidates for goals of the season.

However the Biancocelesti are not without their injury problems.

Already missing German striker Miroslav Klose to injury, Vladimir Petkovic's side will put his replacement, Sergio Floccari, through a fitness test on Friday to determine the extent of a knee injury picked up in training.

Lazio will also be without Frenchman Abdoulay Konko after he picked up a knee injury that will keep him out for at least a month.

Brazilian midfielder Hernanes said Saturday's game could be "decisive" for Lazio's Champions League hopes.

"We have another crucial game at the weekend," he said. "There are only two months left and from now on every match will be decisive."

Defeat to Catania, meanwhile, would prove a setback to Inter's hopes of maintaining their challenge for a Champions League spot.

They are already 14 points behind Juventus but only three behind third-placed Lazio and face their Sicilian hosts without Japanese defender Yuto Nagatomo, who has been diagnosed with a meniscus ligament injury.

Fixtures (times GMT)

Friday

Juventus v Napoli (1845)

Saturday

AC Milan v Lazio (1845)

Sunday

Torino v Palermo (1030), Bologna v Cagliari, Catania v Inter, Fiorentina v Chievo, Pescara v Udinese, Sampdoria v Parma, Siena v Atalanta (all 1300), Roma v Genoa (1845)

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