With stars set to align on Monday evening at the Stadio San Paolo in Naples, calcio fanatics – naturally – look to the attacks of Napoli and Milan as the likely decider in who comes away with the victory, but is that really where the match will be won?
The dangerous attacking prowess of the partenopei versus the in form – and resurgent – rossoneri, a clash of two high-profile clubs. When this fixture was looked at weeks ago on your calendar, the word “goals” immediately came to mind. In one corner, you have the prolific dynamo Lorenzo Insigne and Serie A’s head honcho atop the goalscoring chart in Gonzalo Higuain. Opposite them is Milan’s clinical combo of Carlos Bacca and French import M’Baye Niang. Insigne has exploded this season for Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli, having collected 10 goals with an incredible ten assists. But, no player has been more lethal than Higuain who has 24 goals in nearly as many matches. For Siniša Mihajlović’s side, Bacca has made the most of little opportunity he’s been granted, tallying an impressive 13 goals. While he hasn’t produced to the level of the three mentioned above, Niang has helped give the red and black a major lift up top with five goals of his own.
Naturally, it’s fair to say that the match will be decided by who can make the most of the goal chances given to them, right? Perhaps, but if that is to be the case, the defenses of each side will have their work cut out for them and ultimately, will play largely into the outcome. Let’s weigh in.
Sarri has been sticking to what’s working, and it’s likely he will do the same on Monday. This season, the former Empoli tactician’s preferred setup has been the 4-3-3, with a defensive alignment – from left to right – of Elseid Hysaj, Kalidou Koulibaly, Raul Albiol and Faouzi Ghoulam. Unlike previous Napoli sides where the defense always lacked that little extra for the partenopei to really contend for league hardware, this season has been different.
Sarri has his men playing organized football; top to bottom. Hysaj and Ghoulam give Napoli two different looks on opposite flanks of the pitch. The 22-year old Albanian does a little bit of everything. Most would agree that he doesn’t obtain a single outstanding quality, yet he’s serviceable and has been a mainstay at the left-back position. Ghoulam, on the other hand, is a bit more physical and has taken major strides forward in his game. While both Bonaventura and Honda lack the plus-pace able to exploit Ghoulam and Hysaj on the break, they still pose a threat with their on-the-ball movements able to open play up.
Koulibaly and Albiol have the two centre-back slots on lockdown, and have all season long. The Senegalese defender, to his credit, has made drastic improvements in his second season in Italy, becoming the brute force that’s been causing headaches for opposing attackers on a regular basis.
Most Napoli supporters did not know what to make of their defense this season, but the 24-year old ex-Genk centre-half has provided them with a viable starter capable of been dominant. Alongside him is the former Real Madrid man in Albiol who’s given the young backline some stability. The Spaniard is tactically intelligent and finds ways to cover his ground despite not being fleet of foot. In a defense full of younger men, Albiol has provided veteran leadership, needed to compete for a Scudetto crown.
Bacca and Niang compliment each other so well. The Colombian is pacey and likes to run on the break, whereas Niang likes to get physical with defenders and create space for himself using his size and skill. The focus for Napoli will be to disrupt the runs of Bacca and prevent deliveries into his area.
Unlike Napoli who, for the most part, have taken to the pitch with the same defensive setup all year, Milan has jumbled around with their squad hoping to find continuity and consistency. On matchday 1 against Fiorentina, Mihajlović started Rodrigo Ely alongside Alessio Romagnoli. In that opening round loss, things did not go smoothly for the former Avellino man as he was sent off before the break with a red card. Since then, the Brazilian international has only made two more league appearances and was virtually frozen out before being diagnosed with a fractured metatarsal.
Fast forward and Mihajlović seems to have finally found the best vice-Romagnoli in Alex. Both Philippe Mexes and Cristian Zapata squandered their golden opportunities to secure a starting role, thus paving way for the ex-Chelsea defender to slide in.
While Alessio Romagnoli’s been worth every euro – 25 million to be exact – for Milan due to the inept play of the majority of options in the squad, it’s been the revitalization of Alex which has helped lighten the burden on the azzurrini star. He’s strong, throws his body around and is a force in the air on both ends of the pitch. Together, Romagnoli and Alex have been a sigh of relief in the trenches during this recent run. The former Sampdoria standout has worked wonders to help Milan climb up the table, but having Alex there to cover him – and vice versa – stabilizes the side when things go awry.
Obviously, all eyes will be on the Argentine. He is a pure goalscorer and an exceptional finisher. Part of what’s made him so prolific this season is that he has several options -notably insigne – who he can lay off to and retrieve the ball back in a dangerous position. You can also credit the midfield play of Jorginho, Hamsik and Allan for feeding him with the chances. The former Real Madrid star has tallied 134 total shots, via Squawka.
With Romagnoli to start from the bench due to an on-going battle with the flu, Zapata wil likely start in his place. Alex and the Colombian need to avoid committing too soon and close down in the midfield to disrupt Napoli, even if it means losing the possession battle.
For the fullbacks, it’s been Ignazio Abate and Luca Antonelli manning the flanks. The speedy right-back pledged his allegiance to Milan this past summer when he signed an extension until 2019, amid interest from Italian rivals. Despite still lacking that killer cross on the attacking end, his hard work and drive gives Milan a boost when the game winds down. On Monday, that energy could play dividends preventing Insigne from running rampant. Out of the two, Antonelli has been far more impressive. The ex-Genoa man moved back to Milan for a fee far beneath his actual worth. Antonelli has been as consistent as they come in Serie A at the left-back position, using his awareness, tackling ability and overall knowledge of the role to better his opponent more times than not. Despite having the younger Mattia De Sciglio to contend with, Antonelli is simply a level above.
Both Insigne and Callejon will be wanting to trail-blaze down the pitch and make things uncomfortable. It’s simply what they do. In the first meeting, De Sciglio started at right-back and the pint-sized Italian had a field day, scoring two goals. The first of two came when De Sciglio failed to track his run, allowing Higuain and Insigne to play one-two football. Perhaps Abate has learned from his teammates’ costly mishap?
In the first meeting between the two clubs, it was Sarri’s side who outclassed Mihajlović as the Neapolitans steamrolled Milan to a 4-0 victory at the San Siro.
On Monday, each defense will have their hands full with a potential bombardment of pressure that is to come from the attack. For Napoli, they will proceed with business as usual. While they have improved in multiple areas of their club, it’s no surprise as to what their strategy will be to decipher the currently hot Milan side who recently defeated two of the top clubs in Fiorentina (2-0) and Inter (3-0). They will attempt to make Mihajlović’s men sweat it out and earn every metre of space.
For Milan, the club has been working heavily on passing drills this week in training, suggesting their intentions are to control the tempo, win the battle in the midfield and catch Napoli napping on the counter. If they can maintain steady possession and frustrate a high-powered offense who likes to run, it could be a good evening for the red and black.
Despite some of the individual battles to be fought, it’s likely the outcome could be decided in the barracks of the defense.