Napoli and AC Milan face off at the Stadio San Paolo in Naples on Saturday afternoon. Normally this matchup would ooze with intrigue and have significant implications on the Serie A scudetto chase, but things are a bit different this year.
After losing 3-1 to Fiorentina at home last weekend (their sixth loss on the young season), Milan is currently 13th in the table. Napoli, on the other hand, are third, chasing Juventus and Inter Milan.
The trip to the south may be the best or worst thing for AC Milan's season. A win in hostile territory might be just the catalyst they need. A loss would only seem like something more to pile onto a season of woes.
Let's take a look at some of the key battles that will go a long way in deciding who will claim the points from this Serie A clash.
How will Philippe Mexes and Mario Yepes fare against Edinson Cavani?
Luckily for the Milan, Napoli doesn't post-up Cavani like a traditional target man.
The Rossoneri really struggled in containing Luca Toni last week at the top of Fiorentina's formation. Cavani is better with the ball at his feet, and Napoli bases its strength on the counter attack. The Uruguayan star has now scored in three straight games, including a four-goal explosion against Dnipro in the Europa League a week ago.
In last year's San Paolo-hosted match, Cavani scored a hat trick in a 3-1 victory.
Milan did a little better in the return match at the San Siro earlier this year, holding Cavani scoreless in goalless draw.
If the task of containing Napoli's potent attack wasn't challenging enough, Milan will be without Daniele Bonera, who could be lost for a few weeks after picking up a muscle strain on the weekend.
HamŠik was matched up against Pirlo when Juventus and Napoli clashed in Turin. HamŠik did a good job shadowing the Juve regista for the first half. Juve's breakthrough didn't come until late in the affair, and only then from a set piece delivered by Pirlo, a situation HamŠik could do nothing to impact.
The problem with HamŠik versus Pirlo was that Napoli's creative core was too occupied with marking his opposite number. Similar in style, but well short on Pirlo-type execution, is AC Milan's Riccardo Montolivo. HamŠik should have no issues containing Montolivo when he's on the ball, and Mazzari should press higher on the pitch with Inler or Behrami.
With HamŠik on the ball, Napoli is at their most dangerous.
He can provide service for Cavani, Pandev or Insigne up front or score from distance. The visitors could be in for another long day if HamŠik adds to his five goal, four assist total on Saturday.
One of Serie A's best defenders versus Milan's best player this season and an emerging young star—that's an enticing individual showdown.
El Shaarawy is undoubtedly Milan's only bright spot in the dark season. His eight league goals is tied for first with Erik Lamela and Cavani in Serie A. His form got him deserved attention and a call up to the national team.
Campagnaro has shored up Napoli's defense, an area of the team they struggled with last year. And though in practice he'll often slide to play central defense or get help from Paolo Cannavaro, Campagnaro is sure to have plenty of encounters with Milan's striker.
The speed of El Shaarawy, I believe, we'll be an issue for Campagnaro. If Massimo Allegri goes to Napoli with ideas of taking points he should try to exploit a potential weakness in this matchup.
Advantage: AC Milan
Walter Mazzarri's 3-4-1-2 is just as potent on the counter attack as they were last year with Ezequiel Lavezzi. Lorenzo Insigne is a major spark of the bench and he may start in Pandev's place if the Macedonian international doesn't go. He left in the 38th minute last week versus Genoa.
Napoli's maligned defense from a year ago is improved allowing only nine goals thus far in the campaign, including six shutouts in all competitions.
If there are no changes from the last weekend Allegri will come out with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Bonera being out and with injuries to Ignazio Abate and Luca Antonini as well, Milan's back line options are limited.
Pato may be benched in favor of Pazzini after a dreadful performance, including a missed penalty, in the loss to Fiorentina.