This coming Sunday sees the big clash between the two teams currently holding second and third spot in Serie A as AC Milan welcomes SSC Napoli at San Siro in Milan. Both teams go into what is essentially a battle for second place in excellent form. Napoli have won three games on the trot and Milan haven’t lost since the 2-4 defeat at the hands of AS Roma in December 2012.
Napoli is picking up speed
The three games leading up to the clash against the Rossoneri have been good for the Neapolitans who had seen their brilliant form of January turn into a swamp of lost points during February. Despite only losing one game since the turn of the year the light blue had seen the gap with Juventus in first place grow back to 9 points, and, even worse, Milan reduced the gap to third place to a mere two points. With Milan in frightening form it was imperative for Walter Mazzarri’s men to wake up and get some victories to end the series of dull an unsatisfying draws. To make things worse, they were bundled out of Europa League unceremoniously while Edinson Cavani hit a patch of rare and long bad form.
Their mission succeeded as Atalanta was send home to Bergamo after a dramatic 3-2 encounter. It was a vital win for Napoli and it tasted even sweeter as it signalled the return to form of their top scorer. Edinson Cavani opened the scoring goal from the spot within 4 minutes and finished a beautiful second on 65th minute to wipe off Paolo Cannavaro’s own goal. Goran Pandev scored on 81st minute, ending his own poor form, to secure all three points after Atalanta had equalized through German Denis.
Then Torino were beaten 5-3 in Turin in what was a scorcher for the neutrals and a heart wrecking roller coaster ride for the Napoli fans. The match started with Dzemaili giving the lead after just 10 minutes and refusing to celebrate against his former club. Paolo Barreto scored on 30th minute as first half ended 1-1. Dzemaili once again scored two minutes into second half only to see Torino take the lead through two quick goals between 75th and 78th minutes. Torino looked home and dry but then came one of the greatest comebacks in current Serie A season. Dzemaili completed his hattrick and finally his excitement got better of him as he celebrated it. Cavani then struck twice in last 6 minutes as Napoli wrapped up one of the most memorable wins in recent memory.
Last weekend the hattrick of victories was secured after a confident 2-0 cruise at home against basement boys Genoa. It was a convincing home victory secured with goals from Goran Pandev and Blerim Dzemaili in first half hour. It’s all smiles in Naples as their team go into the game in Milan with the knowledge that a draw will be very acceptable and a defeat not a disaster. Since Milan only had a draw against Fiorentina in last weekend’s early Sunday game, next Monday will see Napoli in second place no matter the outcome of the coming weekend’s game. And second place is what it’s all about.
The importance of the direct CL ticket
With nothing but complete catastrophe able to prevent Juventus winning Lo Scudetto an honourable second place is the goal of both Napoli and Milan. Honour, however, is in this context, nothing more than a bi-product of the real prize of the second place, which is direct qualification for the Champions League. Given Milan’s awful start to the season and Napoli’s general role as an outsider both teams will be satisfied to secure CL next year, and especially for Napoli it’s extremely important to get a route to CL that does not include a hard summer encounter against a team from another of Europe’s top football countries.
Milan as a club has huge experience in European games and they have a name that attracts quality players – despite their recent attempts to cut the wage bill. Napoli doesn’t have that stature so CL qualification is more important for them. The club needs to show the players, both them in the club at the moment and those thinking about going there, that the club is ready for the biggest possible stage – within the world of European football, lament it or love it, it is the Champions League. You can almost feel the cold sweat dripping from the city of Naples when confronted with the prospect of a horrible late summer qualification game where everything is to be lost. The uncertainty alone might prompt a star like the top scorer Cavani to leave.
Defensive issues need to be addressed
While it’s obvious that the second place and direct CL qualification is important if Napoli want to keep momentum and show that they are really among the big boys, it’s also important to keep growing no matter the result of this season. If Napoli want to keep the likes of Hamsik and especially Cavani at the club president De Laurentiis must invest in better defenders or find a coach who will be able to install a better defensive structure in the existing side. Walter Mazzarri is a great motivator but he hasn’t been able to create a team where attacking flair goes hand in hand with an ability to protect the vulnerable back three.
Napoli is a team that has been on the way up for a long time now, and while progress has slowed down it hasn’t entirely stopped. Direct CL qualification is an important step, much more so than for Milan who are already among the greats of the international game. But access to CL is not the be all and end all of football. De Laurentiis needs to take measures to make sure that Napoli can be a true Scudetto contender next year – CL or not. That is what the fans, and not least his players, expect.