Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
AC Milan shouldn't be in this position.
European champions? FIFA Club World Cup champions?
In less than two months, that could all be meaningless for the Italian giants.
AC Milan is quickly becoming an afterthought in the Italian Serie A. Without a top-four finish, it isn't guaranteed a spot in next year's Champions League.
The back door? Repeating as champions this year to earn an automatic berth in the next event.
The latter isn't exactly the easiest of the two options.
Sure, it's possible. AC Milan captured consecutive Champions League titles in 1988-89 and 1989-90. But no team's pulled off the feat since.
And with a round-of-16 showdown against Arsenal - arguably the top club in Europe right now - on the horizon, those hopes could be over by early March.
Kaka was hurt in practice, but is likely to play Sunday.
"The last 16 game against Arsenal will be extremely difficult, but getting to the final...isn't an unrealistic dream," AC Milan boss Carlo Ancelotti said.
When AC Milan resumes league play Sunday against Napoli, it will start off one of the most crucial 15-game stretches in the club's history.
Fifteen games in just 52 days - or roughly two a week. That doesn't seem so tough, especially not for one of Europe's traditional powers.
But club teams usually just play one league game a week. Other competitions do occasionally add mid-week games - but seven out of the next eight weeks?
That's what AC Milan faces.
One of those matches is in the Coppa Italia against Catania Calcio, a game AC Milan could decide isn't that important. But will it really just forget about a 2-1 home loss to Catania Calcio in late December?
The other mid-week dates include four Serie A matches and two against Arsenal in the Champions League.
Really, not a single opportunity to take a break.
AC Milan is counting on Brazilian teenage striker Alexandre Pato, who signed in the summer but just became eligible to play on Jan. 3, to make an impact.
Ronaldo (yes, the all-time World Cup scoring leader) is finally returning from injury, but the former three-time FIFA Player of the Year isn't quite as deadly as he once was.
Pippo Inzaghi was recently hospitalized with kidney stones and Kaka was hurt in practice, but at least Kaka - the 2007 FIFA Player of the Year - is likely to play Sunday.
At the same time, it won't matter who's on the field if AC Milan can't figure out a way to win at home. Amazingly, AC Milan is winless at San Siro in league games this season.
In seven home matches - two losses and five draws - AC Milan has scored three goals. Yes, three! And the most recent one? It was scored on a penalty kick by Kaka on Sept. 30.
No wonder AC Milan is in the bottom half of the Serie A standings, well behind first-place Inter Milan.
If there's a silver lining - if that's possible when 25 points separate a club from the top spot - it's that AC Milan has played three fewer games than all but one of the 11 teams ahead of it in the standings.
That lining's luster will surely start to tarnish if AC Milan's league struggles continue Sunday at the San Siro against seventh-place Napoli.
Six of AC Milan's next seven league games are against teams ahead of it in the standings. A few more losses and the 11-point gap that separates AC Milan from fourth-place Udinese and the last automatic Champions League berth will become insurmountable.
And, that brings us back to the position AC Milan shouldn't be in. Last year AC Milan still managed to finish fourth in Serie A despite starting the year with an eight-point deduction because of a match-fixing scandal.
That meant even without winning the Champions League, it would qualify for the world's premier club event again.
This season, AC Milan has continued its brilliant play in the Champions League and in the FIFA Club World Cup, compiling an impressive 7-1-1 record.
But that's led AC Milan to Arsenal - which leads the English Premier League - and what could be the end of the long and winding European road for more than just this season. AC Milan visits Arsenal on Feb. 20, and hosts the second leg on March 4.
"We are the reigning European champions and the chance to retain the Champions League is a great stimulus," Ancelotti said.