By Brian Homewood
TURIN, Italy (Reuters) - Inter Milan have opened the Serie A biscuit tin, sparking an angry reaction from other clubs after saying they do not believe in the "good faith" of referees.
The Italian season would not be complete without conspiracy theories, bizarrely known as biscuits by the media, and Inter president Massimo Moratti duly obliged with his outburst following last weekend's 4-3 home defeat by Atalanta.
Brooding Inter visit Cagliari on Sunday in a match which the homeless Sardinian club will stage in Trieste, near the Slovenian border, after yet another episode in the saga over their search for a stadium.
Meanwhile, third-placed AC Milan, missing maverick striker Mario Balotelli after he needlessly got himself suspended, host second-placed Napoli in a key battle for places in next season's Champions League.
Only the top two teams in Serie A qualify directly for the Champions League while the third must go into the final qualifying round playoff.
Napoli have 62 points, Milan 58 and fourth-placed Fiorentina, who visit Atalanta on Saturday, have 52.
Leaders Juventus, nine points clear at the top, are at fifth-placed Lazio on Monday having bowed out of the Champions League to Bayern Munich in the last eight on Wednesday.
Inter's hopes of taking third place virtually ended last Sunday after they squandered a 3-1 lead at home to Atalanta and lost 4-3 leaving them sixth, eight points behind Milan.
That defeat prompted some astonishing remarks from Inter over the German Denis penalty which pulled the score back to 3-2.
"I no longer believe in the good faith of referees," said Moratti, complaining that his team had not been given a penalty for 21 games.
"I don't think I have to explain things any more clearly, you just have to look at how this championship is developing, especially for us. When they want to hit you, then you get hit."
Moratti's anger stems from the 2006 Calciopoli scandal when Juve were demoted for procuring favourable referees.
Even the usually placid Javier Zanetti complained.
"I've been through a lot of negative situations such as this evening's one but recently they always happen to us," he said.
"I'm talking about the non-existent penalty which Atalanta were awarded, which was really shameful."
Inter then aired some even more outspoken comments from television presenter Paolo Bonolis, a well-known fan of the club, on their television channel.
He said there was a conspiracy to help Milan into the Champions League and suggested Inter should field their junior team in protest.
That was the final straw for Milan who replied with an indignant statement.
"The comments of Paolo Bonolis, made to the Inter Channel and published on the official website of the blue and black club, are exceptionally serious and have no basis whatsoever," they said angrily.
Italy Football Federation (FIGC) president Giancarlo Abete agreed that Inter had gone too far.
"The criticism should not be about the good or bad faith of the referees," he said. "Referees can make mistakes just as international players can miss open goals," he said referring to a staggering miss by Inter's Andrea Ranocchia against Atalanta.
Cagliari, who moved to the Is Arenas stadium this season, have played recent matches behind closed doors due to safety worries and the league have already announced that Sunday's game will be in Trieste, around 1,000 kilometres away.
Giampaolo Pazzini is expected to get another chance for Milan against Napoli after Balotelli was suspended for three games for his behaviour at last weekend's 2-2 draw at Fiorentina.
Balotelli was booked for failing to retreat at a free kick, earning him an automatic one-match suspension for accumulated yellows cards, and got another two games for insulting match officials at the end of the game.
Pazzini should be the frontline partner for Stephan El Shaarawy, who has struggled for goals since Balotelli's arrival.
(Editing by Mark Meadows [email protected]; +41 79 917 1402; Reuters Messaging: brian.homewood)