Milan host Napoli this Saturday knowing a win could put the Rossoneri within one point of the Partenopei, but with the advantage of having a game in hand.
Recent history favours the team from Naples, with one defeat in the last 11 encounters in the league; Maurizio Sarri’s men certainly hold the psychological advantage. Last season’s corresponding fixture was a complete disaster for Milan as they suffered a heavy four goal battering.
With the highest scorers in the league arriving at the San Siro, it is probably the worst time to have your number one defender suspended; Alessio Romagnoli will be missing due to his red card against Torino. Adding to the woes is the fact that teenage regista Manuel Locatelli will also be suspended for the game after collecting too many yellow cards throughout the season.
Both players are fundamental not just to the defensive side of the game but also attacking; Locatelli has been a revelation since replacing injured captain Riccardo Montolivo in October. The shield in front of the back four Locatelli has arguably been the missing piece of the Milan midfield jigsaw puzzle since the departure of Andrea Pirlo. With his excellent ball retention and the knack of scoring the odd goal, Locatelli’s absence will be a huge loss.
In the back, Romagnoli’s defensive guile will be sorely missed as Napoli employs their false nine formation. His partnership with Gabriel Paletta has turned the once leaky Milan defence into the joint third best so far in this seasons Serie A campaign.
But with his careful and precise passing, he enables the Rossoneri to play out from the back, a characteristic that has gained more prominence since Vincenzo Montella became coach. This was highlighted in the previous Serie A match against Torino when Romagnoli completed 60 out of 63 attempted passes before his red card in the closing stages.
Napoli post-Higuain have adapted. Their evolution took another step when they lost striker Arkadiusz Milik to injury whilst on international duty with Poland.
Sarri has employed a false nine formation with an attacking trident of Lorenzo Insigne, Jose Callejon and Dries Mertens. Against Pescara, they collectively had 15 shots out of 23 that Napoli had. Their fluid rotation will be a difficult puzzle to solve.
Fresh after a contact extension to 2020 and a doubling of his wages, Giacomo Bonaventura has proven his importance to the team and has got his just rewards. With the absence of Romagnoli and more so Locatelli, “Jack” will be doubly important if Milan are to get anything from this bout.
Whether he plays out wide left or drop into the midfield three, his influence and game management will needed at his best.
For Napoli, Dries Mertens has made the step up from impact substitute to an integral part of the starting line up.
Only half way through the season and Mertens has already bettered his best goal scoring campaign for Napoli. With his new role, he is also able to use his creative skills and has created an average of 1.34 chances per games.
Recently, history and key players missing leaves Milan fans facing this game with some trepidation, but the game against Torino proved this squad has got some fight. To reach the promised land of Champions League qualification, matches like these are not necessarily must win games just yet, but they are most definitely must not lose games.