If there's ever a time for Napoli to need to prove themselves, that time is now. Three matches without a win. Six points back of Roma in second. Fiorentina closing in on third. A crucial second-leg match against the giallorossi for Coppa glory coming up on Wednesday at the San Paolo. Europa League in less than two weeks.
Alas, this would also be a very good time for Milan to make a statement. Since firing Massimiliano Allegri and bringing in Clarence Seedorf, the rossoneri are undefeated in the league, with only Torino's dogged defending holding them to a draw last week. And now that they've brought in Adel Taarabt, well, anything could happen.
The Enemy Outside
The enemy that must be destroyed? Why, Mario Balotelli of course. That man has more goals in the last ten minutes this season than all Napoli players have combined - including one in injury time in the reverse of this fixture.* He's scored in three of Milan's last four league games and only one of those was from a penalty. It sure would've been nice if Napoli could've faced the rossoneri before Balo got back to being brilliant.
Napoli also must contend with the idealism and revived "team spirit" hovering around Milan like some sort of new-agey cloud, pulling everyone into the "Milan Way." Seedorf is all about trying to bring back the rossoneri way of being, which assumedly means finishing in the top three. They're fifteen points away from that at the moment, by the way.
A sense of being: Milan may be all well and good, but philosophies don't paper up the cracks that have grown so deep in this side. They're playing better, but they still don't look like a side set to challenge for a Champions League position. The defense still looks weak and is prone to being caught out of position. There's not enough steel in midfield to protect the backline. The attack and the defense are prone to disconnect, and the midfield looks lost on how to connect the two.
*this may or may not be true but odds are it is
The Enemy Within
So enter Napoli, a side that should certainly be able to score on Milan, with their quick counterattacks likely able to carve up the defense and get behind the backline.
If Napoli don't destroy themselves first, that is. The problem, in this instance, is the reluctance of Rafa Benítez to believe that the likes of Marek Hamšík, Gokhan Inler and Gonzalo Higuaín can handle two, much less three, games in eight days. He may have a point when it comes to Marek, who might still need some extra time to compensate for his injury. But it's become clear recently that Goran Pandev is not a viable option.
Nor is Duván Zapata. Napoli's third Colombian has made but three starts, and was ineffective in all of them. He is not the vice-Pepita, nor can Rafa afford to use him as one, not with the competition for Champions League places so tight this season.
Inler, well...Inler hasn't had as great a season as in previous years, and he certainly does look better when he gets a rest. And while it's a bit scary to think of Blerim Džemaili partnering Jorginho in midfield, it's better to have Dzei step in now, doing battle with Milan's midfield, than to have to rest Inler or to risk Valon Berhami for the Roma game.
It's time for Rafa to take some risks with these players. It's abundantly clear that the midfield needs Marek, not Pandev, in order to create chances. If Hamšík can't be risked, using José Callejón, Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens for this match is an equally viable alternative. Ziggy and Co. may not be quite as "creative", nor are they as precise or as able to orchestrate a match as Marekiaro, but their constant switching of positions, their speed and their ability to get into dangerous places could very well be enough to knock Milan off-kilter.
Milan might be getting back on track, but Napoli still have the edge in this encounter. If, that is, Rafa is able to trust his side enough to know that his strongest players can handle more than one match per week.
Napoli: 3rd; W13, D5, L4
AC Milan: 10th; W7 D8 L7
Reverse fixture: Milan 1-2 Napoli
goals: Miguel Britos; Gonzalo Higuaín; Mario Balotelli
Napoli injuries and suspensions
Giandomenico Mesto, Anthony Réveillère, Camilo Zúñiga (injured)
Milan injuries and suspensions
Valter Birsa, Bryan Cristante, Stephan El Shaarawy, Keisuke Honda, Cristián Zapata (injured); Daniele Bonera (suspended)
Napoli: Pepe Reina; Faouzi Ghoulam, Raúl Albiol, Federico Fernández, Christian Maggio; Jorginho, Blerim Džemaili; Dries Mertens, Marek Hamšík, José Callejón; Gonzalo Higuaín
Milan: Christian Abbiati; Urby Emanuelson, Philippe Mexès, Adil Rami, Mattia De Sciglio; Nigel De Jong, Riccardo Montolivo; Adel Taarabt, Robinho, Kakà; Mario Balotelli