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By Matt Barker
(Reuters) - AC Milan travel to leaders Juventus on Sunday knowing that defeat would seriously dent their hopes of securing second place in Serie A and automatic qualification for next season's Champions League.
Massimiliano Allegri's side have suffered a blip in form and have slipped four points behind Napoli, who sit second, with six matches remaining,
With Mario Balotelli serving a three-match ban for abusing a match official in the defeat by Fiorentina, and co-striker Stephan El Shaarawy unhappy after being dropped for last weekend's 1-1 draw against Napoli, Milan's attack has lost its cutting edge.
Allegri is set to start with veteran striker Giampaolo Pazzini, but is yet to decide on the other two players in his preferred system of an attacking trio.
El Shaarawy believes he is match fit, despite reports in the Italian press of a knee injury and general tiredness.
Asked by reporters how he was feeling, the 20-year-old Italian international replied: "Ask Allegri."
El Shaarawy is not the only Milan player to have had a moan to the press. Kevin Prince Boateng has been unhappy about being asked to start in a deeper role, but an ankle injury picked up against Napoli may well keep the Ghanaian out of action anyway.
Mathieu Flamini, Milan's scorer last weekend, will definitely be missing after being red-carded in the same game.
The match against Juve completes a tough string of fixtures for third-placed Milan, but the club's run-in towards the end of the season looks comparatively easy.
Napoli should be in confident mood ahead of their home game against Cagliari, despite the Sardinians' recent upswing in form, including a 2-0 defeat of Inter Milan last Sunday.
Milan will also now have to start looking over their shoulder for a revitalised Fiorentina, four points behind in fourth place and playing at home this weekend against struggling Torino.
Viola coach Vincenzo Montella is all set to sign a new contract, having achieved impressive results this campaign with a limited squad and caught the eye of neutrals with his entertaining style of attacking play.
Montella had been mentioned as a possible replacement for under-fire Inter Milan coach Andrea Stramaccioni.
The Nerazzurri have been in miserable form since the turn of the year and will have to elbow past both Lazio and Roma if they are to have any hope of European competition next season. A Cup semi-final defeat by Roma on Wednesday did little to lift Inter's spirits.
Juventus, in fine fettle after seeing off Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome on Monday, are just six points away from claiming their 29th Italian title.
If they beat Milan, they face the prospect of winning the championship away to cross-city rivals Torino the following weekend.
(Reporting by Matt Barker, editing by Justin Palmer)