Two clubs look to close ground on the teams ahead of them—and one looks for revenge—as AC Milan goes south to face Napoli.
Date: Monday, February 22
Time: 8 p.m local time, 7 p.m. GMT, 3 p.m. EST
Venue: Stadio San Paolo, Naples
TV Info: BT Sport Europe (UK), beIN Sports (US)
Live Stream: BT Sport Connect (US), beIN Sports Connect (US)
AC Milan will have revenge on the mind when they line up for kick-off at the San Paolo. On October 4, Napoli arrived at the San Siro in Milan and utterly destroyed the Rossoneri. Lorenzo Insigne scored twice after Allan potted the opener, and an overmatched Rodrigo Ely deflected a cross into his own net with 13 minutes left to complete the 4-0 humiliation.
It was the team's worst home loss in six years, since a Jose Mourinho-led Inter side won the Derby della Madonnina by that score. It showed a Milan team in utter disarray, unable to put together much of anything in attack and totally unable to resist Napoli's nearly unstoppable attack.
The team that is coming to the San Paolo, though, is not the one that folded before the Partenopei four months ago. They've only lost twice in official competition since that day—once to Juventus in Turin and once at home to Bologna straight out of the winter break. They've counted Fiorentina and Inter as teams they've beaten since then, and it can be argued that they should have beaten Roma after dominating the second half of their match in January.
Coach Sinisa Mihajlovic has finally gotten a handle on what his best combination of players is, and that consistency has been key in the team's rising form.
The team's makeup has changed as well. Gianluigi Donnarumma has replaced Diego Lopez in goal. Alex has formed an excellent partnership with young star Alessio Romagnoli in central defense. Giacomo Bonaventura and Keisuke Honda man the wide spots in a four-man midfield, and M'Baye Niang has returned from injury to add an element of speed to Carlos Bacca's deadly finishing ability.
Unfortunately for Mihajlovic, he may not have his full complement for this game. Juraj Kucka, the combative midfielder who could have helped disrupt Napoli's midfield distribution, will be out with a hamstring injury. Even worse, Romagnoli may miss out after missing training Friday with flu-like symptoms, and his backups represent a huge drop in quality.
Regardless, Milan has the stability and the temperament to give Napoli a challenge, even in their home stadium where they've won 10 and drawn two in 12 games.
Maurizio Sarri's men will have to pick themselves up after losing twice in the last week. Last Saturday they lost their first vs. second clash against Juventus in heartbreaking fashion to drop out of first place and then lost late again on Thursday when Denis Suarez buried a free-kick in the first leg of their Europa League round-of-32 tie against Villarreal.
The similarity in those games: a lack of Gonzalo Higuain. Against Juve the Argentinian striker was marked out of the game by Andrea Barzagli, and in Spain he started the game on the bench and only came on in the 67th minute.
Controlling Higuain is the key to success against Napoli. In two of the team's three losses this season, Higuain failed to score, and in the other he was throttled until the very end, when he scored a garbage-time brace in a 3-2 loss to Bologna.
Doing that is easier said than done. A team needs to be either well-coached and organized (like Bologna under Roberto Donadoni or Sassuolo under Eusebio Di Francesco) or have an elite defensive unit like Juve. The Bianconeri showed one roadmap to handling Higuain when they denied him the ball altogether, not letting it get out of the midfield. Faced with the prospect of fielding an under-strength defensive line, this might be Milan's best bet.
With Juve's 15-match winning streak finally coming to an end in Bologna on Friday, Napoli would take a one-point lead in the standings if they win this game. The opportunity to retake the top spot is a huge motivator, but Milan is only four points from fifth themselves and would love the opportunity to gain some ground if Roma falter against Palermo on Sunday. Both clubs have a lot to play for.
|L 1-0 @ Villarreal*||W 2-1 vs. Genoa|
|L 1-0 @ Juventus||D 1-1 vs. Udinese|
|W 1-0 vs. Carpi||W 2-0 @ Palermo|
|W 2-0 @ Lazio||W 3-0 vs. Inter|
|W 5-1 vs. Empoli||W 1-0 @ Alessandria*|
AC Milan Notes
|Napoli (4-3-3)||AC Milan (4-4-2)|
|Hysaj Koulibaly Albiol Ghoulam||Abate Alex Zapata Antonelli|
|Allan Jorginho Hamsik||Honda Bertolacci Montolivo Bonaventura|
|Insigne Higuain Callejon||Bacca Niang|
AC Milan: OUT: GK Diego Lopez (knee), CB Rodrigo Ely (foot), CM Juraj Kucka (hamstring); QUESTIONABLE: CB Alessio Romagnoli (flu)
Higuain may be Napoli's most important player, but he can only score if he gets the ball delivered to him.
Jorginho is the man who will spearhead the effort to get Higuain—as well as Lorenzo Insigne—the ball. After a disappointing 2014-15 in which he had difficulty breaking into Rafael Benitez's side, he has been revitalized under Sarri.
He has settled into the regista role in his coach's 4-3-3, and he fits it perfectly. According to WhoScored.com, he's completing 91 percent of his passes and averaging 1.8 key passes per match. He's also gotten his nose into the game's defensive side, averaging 2.2 tackles and 2.3 interceptions per game.
The Brazilian was able to complete a high percentage of his passes against Juventus, but few of them turned dangerous. He's going up against a lesser defensive team, and he'll be hoping to breathe life into an attack that has suddenly gone silent over the last two games.
To have any attacking punch against the league's second-best defense, Milan is going to need Carlos Bacca to have success this game.
Bacca has been scary-good in his first season in Italy. According to Squawka.com, he has found the target with 70 percent of his shots this year—an astonishing rate for any striker, especially in a league as difficult to score in as Serie A. That he's only scored 13 times this year is a symptom of a lack of service that he's suffered through all year.
Excellent at finding open space and exploiting it, if Bacca gets the ball in the right spot, he will be a menace for Pepe Reina in the Napoli goal. If he can score, Milan has the chance to steal a point or three.
Last week, Higuain was marked out of the game by an aging defender who nonetheless remains one of the game's elite. Alex may not be Andrea Barzagli, but he's had a season that defied expectation. No one expected the 33-year-old to emerge as the best partner for Romagnoli, but he has played fantastically since being installed in the XI in mid-October.
Not a volume tackler, he's good at closing passing lanes—WhoScored.com clocks him at 2.8 interceptions per game—and is imperious in the air. That ability contributes on both ends, as his pair of goals this season proves.
If Romagnoli is absent, leading the back line will fall on the old Brazilian's shoulders. Either way, he will be a major part of what will be keeping Higuain as far away from Gianluigi Donnarumma as possible.
Odds (via Odds Shark)
Napoli win: 5-9
AC Milan win: 17-4