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By ESPN Staff

Serie A: Milan bid to stop the rot at Empoli

ROME, Nov 16 (Reuters) - AC Milan will be desperate for a victory to jump-start their stalling Serie A season when they travel to Empoli on Saturday (1700 GMT).

The Italian giants have lost four out of five league matches, including the last three against Inter Milan, Atalanta and AS Roma, to slip 20 points behind leaders Inter and Palermo after just 11 games.

With their title challenge in tatters, Milan's domestic objective has changed to a top-four finish and a place in next season's Champions League.

Even that, however, will prove difficult if they do not start winning soon.

Various explanations have been offered for the run of poor results, the failure of their strikers being the most obvious one.

Filippo Inzaghi, Alberto Gilardino and Ricardo Oliveira have mustered one goal between them in the last 10 Serie A matches.

Milan's ageing defence, built around the 38-year-old Paolo Maldini, has also come under scrutiny along with the hasty pre-season preparations to get ready for the Champions League preliminaries

A long injury list, including midfielders Gennaro Gattuso and Massimo Ambrosini, and defenders Kakha Kaladze, Serginho and Giuseppe Favalli, has not helped the cause.

Inevitably, though, most of the criticism has centred on coach Carlo Ancelotti, whose position has never seemed so precarious since he took over in November 2001.

'The situation is very delicate, but nothing happens by chance and these results are a sign that several things are wrong,' Ancelotti was quoted as saying in La Gazzetta dello Sport.

'We have spoken a lot about our summer preparations and the injuries. Now, however, we need to put these things to one side and start doing things in a different way.

'In my opinion the problem is not our style. The fact is we are paying a high price for the errors we make. We have to avoid making them, be less wasteful. Usually Milan pushes a lot of players forward in attack and at the moment that's penalising us a bit.

'We have to be more careful, but I think we will turn it around soon. It's not that I'm not worried. I am. But this team knows how to dig deep and shows its character when the need arises,' he added.

Usually, Empoli would be regarded as an easy fixture.

This season, however, the tiny Tuscan side have made a respectable start and are unbeaten in their last five games.

They even pulled off a shock 2-0 win over Palermo when the Sicilians visited the Castellani stadium in September. Another giant-killing performance would deepen the crisis at Milan.

On Sunday (kickoff 1400 GMT), Inter host Reggina, a team whose position at the bottom of the table belies the fact that they have overturned the 15-point penalty they received in the match-fixing scandal.

Even so, the defending Italian champions should be too strong. A stoppage-time goal by in-form striker Julio Cruz against Parma last weekend made it four Serie A wins in a row for Roberto Mancini's side.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic's suspension means that Cruz should start alongside Hernan Crespo up front.

Palermo, meanwhile, will be aiming to set a new club record of six consecutive Serie A wins by winning at Cagliari (Saturday, 1930 GMT).

They will have to do it without playmaker Eugenio Corini, who is suspended, and striker David Di Michele, who picked up an injury during last weekend's 3-0 victory over Torino.