By Alasdair Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) - With the Serie A title race all but over after Inter Milan pulled 11 points clear at the top last weekend, the chasing pack targeting Champions League spots promise to provide a thrilling conclusion to the season in Italy.
Four points separate AC Milan in second place from Napoli in fifth, while Lazio sit four points further back with a game in hand.
AS Roma, one point behind their rivals, cannot be counted out of the top four race quite yet.
What makes the six-team battle for three Champions League spots so open is the number of head-to-head clashes that await in the final eight rounds, starting with third-placed Juventus' trip to Atalanta on Sunday.
The Bergamo club have achieved astonishing success in recent years, reaching the Champions League knockout stages in back-to-back seasons since a club record third-placed finish in 2018/19, a feat they repeated the following year.
Going one better and reaching the runners-up spot is a realistic objective this season for a club with the 11th-highest wage budget in the division.
Gian Piero Gasperini’s entertaining side are the league’s top scorers this season, with 71 goals in 30 matches, and go into the game against Juventus in fourth place, one point behind the champions and on a four-match league winning run.
For Juventus coach Andrea Pirlo, the pressure is on to avoid a result that could plunge his team back into crisis.
Pirlo came in for fierce criticism after picking up one point from games against lowly Benevento and Torino either side of the international break.
Back-to-back wins against Napoli and Genoa were a good response but the critics will be ready to pounce again if Pirlo's side fall in Bergamo.
Juventus could do with some help from their rivals Inter, who are looking for a 12th straight league win when they travel to Napoli on Sunday.
A Juve defeat would hand Gennaro Gattuso's side the chance to draw level with the Turin club with a win, and plunge Pirlo's Champions League qualification hopes into doubt once more.
The chance of top four rivals dropping points make it imperative for AC Milan, Lazio and Roma to get wins against bottom-half opponents Genoa, Benevento and Torino respectively.
Only one round of fixtures between now and the end of the season will not feature a head-to-head clash between top seven teams, and coming out on top in these games will be crucial due to the league format.
If two teams finish the season level on points, the ranking is determined by head-to-head record rather than goal difference.
This rule adds another layer of intrigue to match-ups like Juventus against Atalanta, as their first meeting of the season ended in a 1-1 draw.
With a single point separating the teams, a win in Bergamo could be worth more than just three points come the season’s end.
(Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie, editing by Pritha Sarkar)