ROME, Feb 26 (Reuters) - AC Milan face a major obstacle in their drive for a place in next season's Champions League when they travel south to play Palermo on Wednesday (kickoff 1400 GMT).
Milan's 1-0 win over Sampdoria at the weekend lifted them to fifth on 36 points, one point behind Lazio, who occupy the final Champions League berth.
'The team showed great character and determination, despite having already played (in mid-week against Celtic),' Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti said.
'They reacted well after having (Massimo) Oddo sent off and then in the second half we never looked like conceding a goal.'
Palermo lie third on 44 points and beat Milan 2-0 at the San Siro stadium earlier in the season.
Recently, however, the Sicilian side have been in erratic form, earning just six points from their last six games.
A long-term injury to striker Amauri has left them without a reliable goalscorer, making them a softer target for Milan, who have won seven of their last eight games.
Inter Milan, who are at home to Udinese, are 14 points clear at the top and any doubts they are in a class of their own this season were swept away during Sunday's 5-2 win over Catania.
Even without the injured midfield trio of Patrick Vieira, Esteban Cambiasso and Olivier Dacourt, and with several first-team regulars rested, Inter were far too strong for Catania.
The ease of Inter's victory prompted comparisons between their smooth progress at home and their precarious position in Europe, where they risk going out of the Champions League after being held 2-2 at home by Valencia in the first leg of their first knockout round tie last Wednesday.
Coach Roberto Mancini batted away suggestions that this season's Serie A title race was less competitive than usual.
'I really can't be bothered with those who say it's a second-rate title race,' he said.
'The comparisons between Serie A and the Champions League don't interest me.
'If we keep on winning like this, people will have to talk about a great Inter side. In Italy, the title is never a foregone conclusion.'
Fourteen points behind Inter, and eight ahead of Palermo, second-placed AS Roma travel north to play Chievo with little to fight for except second place.