Stadio San Paolo, Naples
Saturday, February 8, 2014; 19:45 Hrs GMT
As the season has progressed, Napoli have consistently been forced to redefine their objectives and adjust the plans accordingly. They were billed the only realistic threat to Juventus’ defence of Serie A title at the beginning of the campaign and were one side Europe was anticipating to explode mainly because of Rafa Benitez’s strong credentials in the continental football. However, one may say they were a bit hard done by for being put into a group that was mildly put, a tough one to qualify from. Since the elimination their title challenge should ideally have intensified but that sadly hasn’t been the case. Presently they stand a massive 15 points behind the holders Juventus and it will be safe to suggest the Scudetto hopes are as good as gone. The defeat to Roma in the away leg of the Coppa Italia semis might have raised some eyebrows too although the tie looks far from over yet. But as things stand, Napoli’s objective for the remainder of the season has certainly been reduced to securing a berth for the next edition of Champions League.
AC Milan on the other hand haven’t lost a game since the arrival of Clarence Seedorf but that is not to suggest the former club legend has pulled off anything earth-shattering. The exit from Coppa Italia at the hands of Udinese means Milan gave up on the only title they were realistically competing for and the remainder of their season should now be deemed nothing more than a platform for Seedorf to test his methods and be best prepared for the next season. A visit to San Paolo could be the sternest of his tests in the short managerial spell and from the looks of his side, it doesn’t quite appear he’s ready for it yet. But then, stranger things have happened in football.
Team News & Tactical Brief
A shambolic loss to Atalanta was followed by another one to Roma in a closely fought battle. Momentum is therefore the last word you’d associate with Napoli at the moment but that could very well change considering the kind of season their visitors for the weekend are having.
Benitez has overseen a tactical metamorphosis of Napoli in his regime and the very strongly founded 3-5-2 has been put to good rest. There were questions raised on Napoli’s ability to fold the wingbacks and adjust to a top-heavy 4-2-3-1 but things haven’t looked out of shape so far. Christian Maggio in particular was a suspect to meet the demands of this formation but his season to this point has been unspectacularly steady which is a big positive for Napoli. Benitez is expected to slot in the winter acquisition Faouzi Ghoulam on the other side of the flank while both Albiol and Fernandez should continue to start at the heart of the defence.
There aren’t too many sides in Serie A deploying a 4-2-3-1 and hence the business will get slightly tricky when Napoli face an opposition who look tactically identical, not technically though. Another winter signing Jorginho should find his first start slotting into the midfield two alongside the ever so consistent Gokhan Inler. Jorginho might be asked to play a more auxiliary role while Inler plays the anchor. Napoli are narrow in the middle and they must be alert against Milan’s threat from the wider areas. Should Milan be able to see the better of the ball, the midfield for the home side might be forced to stretch to win it back. Quick exchange of passes hasn’t been their forte all the season but they’re surely one side dangerous going forward.
The form of Dries Mertens should be encouraging for the home side going into this game. The Belgian attacking mid has been instrumental for them ever since his arrival in the summer and has perfectly gelled into the tactical setup of Benitez. Mertens displays an impeccable positional understanding with skipper Marek Hamsik and together the two pose immense threat for any defence in Italy. Callejon completes the attacking midfield while Higuain should start at the top of the attack. Attacking combinations far inferior in quality haven’t found it really hard to unlock the Milan defence and going by that, you’d like to believe Napoli are bound to frequent the net.
Probable Starting Lineup [4-2-3-1]: Reina; Maggio, Fernandez, Albiol, Ghoulam; Jorginho, Inler; Callejon, Hamsik, Mertens; Higuain
Seedorf is facing some selection dilemma with Honda being left out of the squad as he has been found down with gastroenteritis. Kaka too is believed to have caught up flu and is doubtful to start. The likeliest option is to push Montolivo forward to play in the central attacking midfield to be flanked on either side of Robinho and the new signing Adel Taarabt. Mario Balotelli is back after serving a week’s suspension and should be ready to lead the attack.
In a 4-2-3-1 formation, the midfield double plays the most decisive role for the onus lies completely on them not only to find the attacking players in good positions but also to hold the ball in the middle of the park for long enough to see the wide players overlap and time their runs to perfection. Passing range is one key attribute for players playing in that position and with Montolivo being slotted further up, the combination Seedorf is likely to deploy is of Muntari and De Jong. While the latter is the most reliable of the current squad when it comes to guard the fragile looking defensive line, it’s Muntari who might find himself in the wrong position here. Ball winning is definitely his forte but he’s far from the guy to engineer an attack while playing deep.
Seedorf should continue with De Sciglio and Emanuelson on either side of defence and while neither has particularly impressed in the last few games, they’re still the best Milan have got to play in those positions. Rami and Mexes should take the central slots in the defence and nobody should really be surprised to see a couple of customary defensive slip-ups owing to the lack of understanding between the two.
Clarence Seedorf will surely face a test of his tactical repertoire here as he might very well be forced to fold his formation to a 4-3-3 with Montolivo dropping back, should Napoli exploit the available space in the midfield. The home side have a very good chance to hold a high line and put pressure straightaway on the opposition by pressing them back. Milan aren’t technically adept at zonal marking and it will naturally not be the best option to resort to even if the threat continues to grow from Napoli. The focus must remain on greater ball retention and make it hard for Napoli to bring their attacking superiority into equation.
Probable Starting Lineup [4-2-3-1]: Abbiati; De Sciglio, Rami, Mexes, Emanuelson; De Jong, Muntari; Robinho, Montolivo, Taarabt; Balotelli
Players To Watch Out For
The Belgian has been a revelation at Napoli and will be the key component in their attack for the years to come. Operating from the left channel, not only he would create all sorts of problems for the Milan defence, his presence will mean the fullbacks will also be kept in good check before trying anything too fancy. His quick exchange of passes with Hamsik could put Milan on the back-foot right from the start.
Mario Balotelli (Milan)
There has never been any real doubt on his potential but it is the application that often draws criticism his way. Balotelli has kept scoring goals from time to time this season but hasn’t quite been the same influence he was for the first six months since his transfer. Nothing could be like setting a big game on fire with his prowess to win back the confidence of Milanisti.
Napoli 3-1 Milan
Under Seedorf, the team has showed signs of improvement but one might suspect it’s not good enough just yet to trouble a side of Napoli’s quality. The hostility at San Paolo needs no explanation and coupling that factor with the difference in pedigree between the sides, Napoli should register a comfortable victory here.