What: Italian Serie A
Who: AC Milan vs Napoli
When: Monday, 28th February, 2011, at 19:45 UK time
Where: Giuseppe Meazza Stadium, Milan, Italy

The Start of a Key Run

AC Milan are embarking on a series of key games which will likely decide the fate of this season’s Serie A. The visitors here, Napoli, are the league’s big surprise package, and the following Saturday Milan head to Turin to face Juventus, while Palermo lie in wait on 20th March; the run couldn’t be more difficult for the title contenders. Yet come the end of it, Italy will know more about whether the Scudetto can return to the Rossoneri for the first time since the 2003/04 season. The derby against Inter too must not be overlooked, with Milan meeting the Nerazzurri on 3rd April.

This year, Massimiliano Allegri’s men have endured mixed fortunes against their rivals, beating Inter (thanks to a Zlatan Ibrahimovic penalty) and Napoli in Naples (2-1, through goals from Robinho and Ibrahimovic), but losing at home against both Juventus (2-1) and Roma (1-0). 

Sitting top of the table, three points above Napoli and five ahead of Inter, Milan must see off the Azzurri to knock them out of the title race. The key question is whether Allegri will decide to play with Alexandre Pato or Antonio Cassano to partner the simply untouchable Ibrahimovic. The midfield presents a different problem, with Andrea Pirlo and Massimo Ambrosini sidelined with injury. Allegri must come up with a winning combination against a quickly improving Napoli.

Scudetto in Sight

The Neopolitans began this season with the clear objective of securing a place in next year’s Champions League, but now they are fighting for the Scudetto. Coach Walter Mazzarri arrived last year, seven games into the league, and found a team that had, under Roberto Donadoni, looked depressed and disappointed. Mazzari was able to change that mindset, and guided the Azzurri to sixth spot in the table, with qualification for the current Europa League.

Napoli’s secret is a high-class frontline, with Slovak Marek Hamsik playing as a trequartista, behind Argentine Ezequiel Lavezzi (who will be suspended for the trip to the San Siro) and Edinson Cavani, the Uruguayan who arrived from Palermo last summer. Cavani has more than repaid president Aurelio De Laurentiis’ faith with 20 goals in 26 Serie A games.

Unfortunately for Mazzari, squad depth is an area in which Napoli are found wanting, and replacing Lavezzi for this match is an almost impossible task. It is likely Argentine Ernesto Jose will get the coach’s vote against Milan, but it is further down the pitch, in the struggle for the midfield, that Walter Gargano and Christian Maggio could be crucial for Il Ciuccio in an area the hosts are themselves depleted.


Recent form

AC Milan:
AC Milan 4-0 Parma (12/02; Serie A)
AC Milan 0-1 Tottenham Hotspur (15/02; Champions League)
Chievo Verona 1-2 AC Milan (20/02; Serie A)

Napoli 1-0 Villarreal (17/02; Europa League)
Napoli 1-0 Catania (20/02; Serie A)
Villarreal 2-1 Napoli (24/02; Europa League)

Key absences

AC Milan: Andrea Pirlo, Massimo Ambrosini, Luca Antonini

Napoli: Ezequiel Lavezzi (suspended)

Players to watch

AC Milan – Alexandre Pato: The "Papero" (Duck) has an impressive goalscoring record this season, and while 10 goals may not appear too many, Pato has missed a number of games due to injury. The Brazilian has been criticised by Allegri and Milan’s other stars (Ibrahimovic and Gennaro Gattuso), with fans whistling his touches at the San Siro. The general thought is that the skilful, quick forward has the capacity to be one of the best in the world, but can sometimes appear lazy and disinterested.

Napoli – Edinson Cavani: A Uruguayan international, Cavani finds himself at the top of the Serie A scoring charts with his 20 strikes thus far. The forward enjoyed a super World Cup with Uruguay and has continued that form, working well with Hamsik and Lavezzi to form a lethal forward line. Europe’s biggest clubs are sniffing around, but De Laurentiis is determined to build a new Napoli, to compete at the highest level, around his hitman.

Match Prediction

Milan coach Allegri seems likely to opt for a typical 4-3-1-2 system, with Christian Abbiati in goal and a defence of Ignazio Abate, Thiago Silva, Alessandro Nesta and Massimo Oddo (surprisingly deployed on the left – Oddo is right footed). In midfield, Mathieu Flamini, alongside Gattuso and Kevin Prince Boateng will support an attack of Robinho, Ibrahimovic and Pato or Cassano.

In the Napoli dugout, Mazzari should set his troops out in a 3-4-2-1 formation, with Morgan De Sanctis between the sticks, Hugo Campagnaro, Paolo Cannavaro and Salvatore Aronica the defensive line. A midfield of Christian Maggio, Michele Pazienza, Walter Gargano and Andrea Dossena. Up front Cavani will operate as a long striker, with Sosa or Yeba and Marek Hamsik just behind.

This is a game that is sure to be tight, with few shots on goal, but it is one Milan know they must win to give a clear signal to the rest of Serie A that they are set on winning the Scudetto. Milan to shade a competitive match.

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