MILAN (Reuters) - The race for Italy's final European berth has turned into a slow crawl among seemingly reluctant rivals, with AC Milan, Inter Milan and Fiorentina all suffering recent embarrassing setbacks to compound already lacklustre seasons.
With Juventus on the brink of a sixth successive title, AS Roma and Napoli heading for the Champions League and Lazio and Atalanta set for the Europa League group stage, the illustrious trio have been left to scrap it out for sixth place.
Milan will at least have some say in the title race as a win or draw at home to Roma on Sunday, coupled with a Juventus victory at home to Torino the day before, will hand the Turin side another Serie A triumph.
Finishing sixth earns a place in the Europa League third qualifying round, which is played in late July and early August, and while Italian clubs always stress the importance of playing in Europe, it is not the most enticing of prizes.
The early start to the season, additional matches and travelling can take a heavy toll on teams, leading to a loss of domestic form as the campaign progresses.
When Sassuolo qualified last season, the club's modest resources could not cope with the burden. As injuries built up, their league form was affected and they are now 14th in the table.
Milan, a shadow of their once great selves, currently occupy sixth place on 59 points with four rounds of fixtures remaining, followed by Inter on 56 and Fiorentina on 55.
Milan have won only one of their last five games and their last two results were a 2-1 home defeat by lowly Empoli and a 1-1 draw at relegation-threatened Crotone.
Neighbours Inter, meanwhile, have fared even worse, failing to win any of their last six games. They will be expected to end that run at Genoa, suffering an ever more miserable season, on Sunday.
Fiorentina appeared ready for a late surge two weeks ago when they came from behind to beat Inter 5-4 for a rousing win.
But, instead of capitalising on that victory, they slumped to a shoddy 2-0 defeat last Sunday against a Palermo side who had only won three games all season.
"This was one of our worst performances in my two seasons here," Fiorentina coach Paulo Sousa said. "These players performed below their potential. It was not the right attitude and I did not see the right hunger."
Milan coach Vincenzo Montella, meanwhile, said that his team had been distracted by the sale of the club to a Chinese consortium, which was completed last month after protracted negotiations.
"Inevitably, something happened on a mental level," he said.
"What has happened, on an unconscious level, is no one's fault. There's been a major change and we need to find a new balance. These are normal, inevitable situations."
(Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by John O'Brien)