Milan vs. Napoli: Both Sides Still Way Behind Juventus
Massimiliano Allegri's Milan haven't half been impressive this season. If Serie A had started in November, they'd be in first place, on the brink of their 19th Scudetto.
Unfortunately for the Rossoneri and the Partenopei, the Italian league starts in August and consists of 38 games. This one was vital for both parties—a "six-pointer" in the truest sense.
For Milan a win would have closed the gap to Napoli's second place to within a point, and for Walter Mazzarri's men victory would have put them all but out of Allegri's reach, secure in the comfort of automatic Champions League qualification.
In the end, the game that had been billed as one of the clashes of the season fizzled out to a 1-1 draw.
The result will suit neither, as it leaves second-placed Napoli still within touching distance of third-placed Milan, and the Rossoneri within the sights of fourth-placed Fiorentina.
There'll likely be some discussion over the wisdom of starting top scorer Stephen El Shaarawy on the bench, but a strike partnership of Robinho and Giampaolo Pazzini is more than ample. Milan's problems lay elsewhere.
Mazzarri was able to start his preferred trio of Goran Pandev, Edinson Cavani and Marek Hamsik up front, but he too has issues away from the front.
In fairness to both sides, they boast squads with plenty of promise across the pitch and can threaten from several different positions. But both share a similar weakness—one that's hard to quantify but one that will have to be addressed if they're to genuinely threaten Juventus next term: They need to develop a consistent ability to close out games.
But for goal-scorer Mathieu Flamini's sending off midway through the second half, this had the looks of a game that could go to the wire; neither side willing to give up on the win or able to do what was necessary to take it.
As it was, the Frenchman's red card marked the high-water mark of the clash, and afterwards the game ran out of steam in much the same way as Napoli's title challenge has.
But result aside, the fact that these two sides struggled so much against one another show that while they're evenly matched, neither are yet a force that can trouble Antonio Conte's Juventus.
Yes, Milan have a young, promising side that has been extremely impressive after their slow start. But Juve have a squad far from short on talent—only theirs was able to hit the ground running. And yes, Napoli attack like the best of them and Edinson Cavani is a goal machine, but one goal-scorer does not a Scudetto make.
Somewhat unrealistically, there were some still talking of a Napoli Scudetto. That's a dream that will have to wait for another year.
Though always entertaining and not lacking in talent, Mazzarri's side still look the unfinished article. And with crunch games against Inter and Roma still to come, even with a win against Milan, it would have been extremely unlikely that they'd have overhauled Juventus without a complete Bianconero breakdown.
While both Milan and Napoli are excellent on paper, both sides still lack those crucial finishing touches. And if the loss to Bayern Munich proved that Juventus are still a step below the very best teams in Europe, then the gap between Napoli, Milan and the Bianconeri should worry Serie A fans because it shows how far behind the chasing pack are.
This discrepancy was on the mind of Juve boss Conte recently, when speaking after his side's quarter final Champions League loss, he said:
I can't see an Italian team winning the Champions League in the coming years. It makes me laugh when I hear that with just two or three new signings we can win the Champions League. Italian football has come to a standstill and that should be a concern for everyone.
When was the last time an Italian team reached the semi-finals? I think everyone has to pull together to try and change things in Italian football. When I say everyone, I mean the clubs, the supporters, the media and all the institutions.
The decline in the league's quality and its ability to compete, not just with one another but more importantly on the European stage, is something that's worried Serie A commentators for some time now, and Juve boss Conte is the latest in a string of high-profile figures to voice his concerns.
For Napoli and Milan, the question remains what can be done about it over the summer.
Milan look to be a side on the rise, and with a couple of well-considered additions, there's every reason to believe they could not only challenge for honours at home next year but could also make a fine showing in the Champions League.
Napoli, meanwhile, might just have run their course. Ezequiel Lavezzi's departure for Paris last year raised the question of when the rest of Mazzarri's prodigiously talented young crop of players might leave, and it's a question that will be in full voice again this summer. Can they step it up? Go one farther and actually win something? Or is it time for Cavani & Co. to move on to pastures new?
It's inconceivable that both the Nerazzurri and the Giallorossi will be so poor again in 2013-14, and if Claudio Lotito gets his cheque book out, Lazio might be in the mix as well. Then there's the small matter of Vincenzo Montella's very impressive Fiorentina.
Serie A next season is sure to be a very close-run thing. If Milan and Napoli aren't careful, they might find that all their momentum to this point has been wasted.
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