Football: Two Milan giants slipping back into mediocrity after bright starts

MILAN (REUTERS) - After early flickers of promise, AC Milan and neighbours Inter are sliding back into mediocrity, raising the possibility that the city will again be missing from the Champions League next season.

Both teams lost 0-2 in Serie A at the weekend against opponents they would normally expect to beat comfortably, displaying similar symptoms of disorganised defence and toothless attack.

Milan's 2-0 home defeat by promoted Palermo brought the first jeers for new coach Filippo Inzaghi from the San Siro crowd and left them joint sixth with 16 points from 10 games, nine adrift of leaders Juventus and three behind third-placed Napoli.

Inter, meanwhile, went down by the same scoreline at Parma, who have lost all but two of their 10 matches, and are languishing ninth with 15 points.

Both teams appear to be setting their sights on third place, which would earn a Champions League play-off spot next season, and seem to have accepted that they cannot compete with leading pair Juventus and Roma for this season at least.

Having finished fifth and qualified for the Europa League in their first season under coach Walter Mazzarri last term, this was supposed to be the season in which new-look Inter took off.

But a 7-0 win over Sassuolo turned out to be a false dawn and Inter went on to lose 1-4 at home to Cagliari and 0-3 at Fiorentina before spluttering into gear with single-goal wins over Cagliari and Sampdoria, both courtesy of controversial penalties.

The Parma defeat, however, has sent them back into crisis mode, with club directors forced to voice their support for the beleaguered Mazzarri, who is never the happiest of characters even when his side are doing well.

"I'm optimistic because I can see the light at the end of the tunnel," sporting director Piero Ausilio said. "I watch Mazzarri work every day and I know how much professionalism he gives to the team.

"He has the experience and capability to get out of this moment of difficulty. I think this team is good enough to compete for the objectives we set out at the start of the season, which is to improve on fifth place and return to the Champions League."

Seven-time European champions Milan finished eighth in a disastrous performance last season which cost both Massimiliano Allegri and Clarence Seedorf their jobs, although many felt the club's rudderless leadership was just as much to blame.

Like their neighbours, Milan seemed to be mired in an interminable transitional period after selling off a host of top players in the past few seasons.

Inzaghi, previously coach of the club's Under-19 team, provided fresh impetus and seemed to bring out the best in Japanese forward Keisuke Honda, who scored six goals in their first seven matches.

But their last three games have brought draws against Fiorentina and Cagliari and defeat by Palermo, with Honda failing to find the net and Fernando Torres as out of sorts as he was at Chelsea.

"I expected it to be difficult to get Milan back to a certain level with a lot of new players," said Inzaghi. "We had a surprisingly good start to the season but at times we struggle to react when going behind.

"We must remember the team has done well until now and this was a stumble but we will be right back up there if we beat Sampdoria on Saturday."

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