Two of the grandest names in Serie A clash at San Siro on Sunday, as AC Milan host southern rivals Napoli, aiming to keep their Scudetto challenge on track after a positive result in Europe.
Former Milan stalwart Gennaro Gattuso, meanwhile, brings his inconsistent side to the second city after a midweek break, having crashed out of the Europa League in the previous round, and is intent on securing a top four place for his current club.
Having two goals disallowed and seeing Manchester United miss some glaring opportunities, Milan were deserving recipients of a 1-1 draw in the first leg of their Europa League last-16 glamour tie with the Premier League giants. Veteran centre-back Simon Kjaer snatched a much merited away goal at Old Trafford, after former Atalanta forward Amad Diallo had opened the scoring with a cute back-header over a stranded Gianluigi Donnarumma.
Following their weekend success against a competent Verona side at the Bentegodi, their jaunt to England’s northwest continued a positive week for the Diavolo – who resume proceedings against their Red Devil counterparts next Thursday.
First, though they must take on an unpredictable Napoli team, under the idiosyncratic management of an old playing favourite – and past manager – Gennaro Gattuso.
Though Milan are unbeaten in their last four league matches against the Neapolitans, their last home win against them in the top flight was back in December 2014 – since then, they have played out two defeats followed by three draws.
Stabilising somewhat since being toppled from the Serie A summit by their city rivals Inter, Stefano Pioli’s men have also ended Roma’s unbeaten home record and drawn with in-form Udinese in recent weeks. In the standings, they remain in second place, still six points adrift of the Nerazzurri and four ahead of Juventus, who have a game in hand.
Pioli has had to negotiate a tricky spell with several integral pieces of his previously well-oiled machine sidelined through illness or injury – Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Hakan Calhanoglu are among the latest to sit in the Rossoneri’s sick bay – so can be content with the input of his modestly-regarded fringe players.
Versus Verona, both Rade Krunic and Diogo Dalot hit the target for the first time in the 2020-21 campaign, with the title chasers now registering 15 different scorers in Serie A action so far – only free-scoring Atalanta have had more. In Ibrahimovic’s continued absence, it is likely more of the back-up boys may be needed to seal a seasonal double over dangerous Napoli and keep Milan in the hunt for their first Scudetto in a decade.
Ahead of a critical phase of the season, when they are set to face a succession of major rivals, Napoli are unbeaten in three league games and arrive in Milan fresh from a midweek rest after a 3-1 success over Bologna last time out.
Inspirational captain Lorenzo Insigne continued his red-hot form with a brace at Dall’Ara, and the diminutive forward has now racked up four goals from his last five appearances, while the injury and controversy-hit Victor Osimhen offered his under-pressure manager a boost by netting his first goal since November.
In the frequent absence of others through injury and illness, Insigne is currently the club’s leading scorer on 12 league goals and, incidentally, no player in Serie A has scored the opening goal more times (eight) than the fans’ local hero this season. The Naples-born forward’s favourite foil Dries Mertens finally returned to action of late, following injury, and has allowed Insigne to shift back into his favoured role just wide of the front man.
However, with Champions League qualification apparently the minimum standard set by the Partenopei’s demanding president Aurelio De Laurentiis, the equally combustible Gennaro Gattuso’s team currently sit sixth in Serie A and the fixture list makes for sobering reading.
Their next three away games could prove decisive in the tightly-contested top four battle this term, as after Sunday’s journey to Milan, they must visit Juventus and then Roma. With both Inter and Lazio lying in wait in the weeks following that, there remains all to play for in an intriguing climax to the season for the Campanian club.
Faced with such a forbidding lineup of opponents, Napoli must somehow find a way of ending a winless streak away from home that stretches back to early January, when they won against Udinese at the Dacia Arena. As speculation persists about Gattuso’s future prospects in the hot seat, with Maurizio Sarri and Max Allegri apparently among the contenders to replace him in the summer, his hopes of retaining favour in Naples rest upon it.