Dethroned Juventus hosts Milan with CL hopes on the line

MILAN — Juventus’ fall from grace was starkly highlighted last weekend as bitter rival Inter Milan wrested the Serie A title from its grip while the Bianconeri struggled to beat lowly Udinese.

Only two late Cristiano Ronaldo goals rescued a 2-1 win and kept Juve’s hopes of qualifying for the Champions League from fading dramatically.

A couple of hours earlier, Juventus had seen Inter clinch the league title, ending its nine-year reign at the top of Italian soccer.

“An era is over, but we gave our all,” Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci said. “Inter was the most consistent team and showed it is the strongest side this year.

“Today, however, another chapter begins and we must have the strength and hunger to take back what we held for nine years. We did something epic, difficult to emulate, so congratulations to Inter but Juve always rises again and we will continue to do so.”

The last four matches will be crucial not just for Juve’s pride but also for its chances of reaching Europe’s elite club competition, with the Bianconeri in real danger of missing out.

Juventus on Sunday faces a main rival for a top-four finish and Champions League berth as it hosts AC Milan, which had title hopes of its own until a downturn in form and results.

The two teams are level on 69 points, along with second-place Atalanta. Napoli is only two points further back, while sixth-place Lazio has 64 points but also has a game in hand.

“We know that we have to qualify for the Champions League at all costs,” Juventus coach Andrea Pirlo said. “We’ve got a team here — they’re strong and want to fight to reach their targets.

“They’re united … but this has to be a starting point because we have several important games still to play.”

After the Milan match, Juventus travels to Sassuolo midweek before welcoming the team that ended its nine-year dominance of Serie A. The match against Inter will be even more of a bitter pill for Juve to swallow as the visitors are coached by Antonio Conte — the coach who steered the Bianconeri to the first three of their nine recent titles.

The man currently in the Juventus dugout knows that his time could be coming to an end despite assurances from Fabio Paratici, the club’s managing director of football.

“Will Pirlo stay if we qualify for the Champions League? Yes, certainly,” Paratici said recently. “But we’re not even thinking of not qualifying, we have great confidence in what we are doing, players and coaches.

“That’s our only thought.”

Juventus took a gamble in the offseason when it sacked Maurizio Sarri and surprisingly appointed Pirlo, who had never coached at any level.

The Serie A title was the minimum Pirlo was expected to deliver, but he was also tasked with turning Juventus into a more attractive side and ending the club’s quarter-century wait for Champions League success, and he talked about wanting his players to have the same spirit and desire as the Juventus team he played in under Conte.

The gamble has not paid off.

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