MILAN (Reuters) - Barely one month ago, Inter Milan against AS Roma would have been considered a clash of two Serie A title contenders, but when they meet at San Siro on Sunday, neither side will be thinking about the Scudetto.
Both teams have faded badly in the last month, leaving leaders Napoli (51 points) and second-placed Juventus (50) in a two-horse race for the title and lowering their own ambitions to a place in next season’s Champions League.
The leading pair have opened an eight-point gap over Luciano Spalletti’s third-placed Inter while Roma have dropped to fifth, a further three points behind.
Inter went through their first 16 league games unbeaten and led the table on Dec. 9 but have managed only three draws and two defeats in their last five Serie A games, scoring a paltry two goals in the process.
Roma have managed one win in their last five league games and scored three goals.
The match, the highlight of the round which re-starts Serie A following the winter break, will be the second time that Spalletti has faced Roma since leading the team from the capital to second place with a club record points haul last term.
Inter, enduring their sixth successive season without Champions League football, won the first meeting 3-1 at the Stadio Olimpico at the start of the season.
The shaven-headed Spalletti suggested after Inter’s last match, a 1-1 draw at Fiorentina, that some of his players were not pulling their weight.
“We must make the effort to give something more on an individual basis, especially considering the quality that we have,” he said.
“I would like the lads involved to help contribute to the collective value of the team.”
However, he also dismissed suggestions that the January transfer window could solve his side’s problems.
“Everyone knows we cannot make big signings in this window,” he said. “We can do better by making sure that our players play to their potential. That’s how you get over difficult moments.”
Roma coach Eusebio Di Francesco finds himself in a similar predicament, trying to get the best out of a team who looked superb in October and November but have frustratingly lost their way.
”The one who needs to be fired up first of all is me, trying to get in the heads of the players and making it clear that we ... (must be) the side that finished first in our Champions League group and have given huge problems to all the sides currently ahead of us,” he said.
While Inter and Roma have faded, Napoli and Juventus have pressed on relentlessly, each winning their last four league games.
Juve, aiming for a seventh successive title and lurking one point behind Napoli, have an apparently straightforward home match against struggling Genoa on Monday.
Napoli, on the other hand, have a far more difficult game on Sunday away to Atalanta, who knocked them out of the Coppa Italia three weeks ago and won 2-1 at Roma in their last game.
Writing by Brian Homewood in Bern, editing by Pritha Sarkar