Last season, which marked AC Milan’s 18th Scudetto, could signal the impending conclusion of the usual two team domination, which has been in place since the Caciopoli scandal. Under Walter Mazzarri, Napoli made a superb effort at breaking the stranglehold of the Milan teams but a lack of momentum at the end of the season resulted in a third place finish.
The San Paolo, home of Napoli, witnessed a revival of un-paralleled quality. In August of 2004 Napoli were declared bankrupt. Local film producer Aurelio De Laurentiis refounded the club and under his auspices the team made a triumphant return to the Italian top league in 2007. The magnificently impressive forward line of Hamsik, Lavezzi and Cavani, who alone scored 26 in the league last season, have been driving force behind their return to Champions League football and the major catalyst of optimism. The Partenopei are confident that soon they will take back the Serie A title that has eluded them since the days of El Diego.
Milan haven’t rested on their laurels since their Serie A conquest last season. Taye Taiwo and Philippe Mexes were captured on free transfers, with the hope of bolstering a defence that looked shaky at times last season, especially in Europe. Creative force Alberto Aquilani has settled well at the Giuseppe Meazza on loan from Liverpool while last season’s top scorer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, was purchased from Barcelona on a permanent basis.
On the opening day of the new season, Milan were held to a 2-2 draw at home by fellow challengers Lazio, while Napoli comfortably defeated relegation fodder, Cesena, 3-1. In midweek both teams were unable to take all three points in their respective Champions League fixtures. Napoli showed great counter attacking awareness when they held Manchester City to a 1-1 draw at the Etihad Arena. Milan, on the other hand, were lucky to escape with a 2-2 draw at the Camp Nou when a 92nd minute Thiago Silva header was enough to
earn a point against Barcelona.
Ahead of the match the atmosphere around the San Paolo was palpable as over 50,000 Napoli faithful were eager to discover if they could right the wrongs of last season and overcome AC Milan, a team they lost to convincingly both home and away.
Mazzarri said before the game that he wanted Napoli to play with the same style that was produced in the second half of the game at the Etihad but when the game kicked off they looked unable to link two simple passes together, losing possession.
In the early stages both teams look incapable of breaking down the defences, with a lot of the work being done in the centre of the park. Milan looked to take control: attacking down the wings, penetrating, trying to find any gaps in the defence that could lead to the significant first goal and it only took 12 minutes for one of those crosses to take effect, as a Cassano cross was met with a beautiful diving header from Aquilani to make it 1-0. Mazzarri could only look on as the dominance of the Rossoneri was too much for his nervy defence.
Napoli showed fantastic resilience as Milan failed to keep their lead, gifting a free kick that was whipped into the box. The ball went into a crowd of players before landing at the feet of Cavani, stood on the corner of the six yard box unopposed, who volleyed it into the corner of the net to make it level again.
Milan looked to get back their advantage and pushed hard for a second. Despite this, it was Napoli who created the first opportunity after the break and in a beautifully crafted counter attacking move; Cavani was unlucky not to get his second. He was the prevalent threat to the Milan defence, making incisive runs and linking well with Lavezzi to cut through the sturdy Milan backline. Meanwhile Antonio Cassano, under pressure to earn a starting place in the AC team, looked off the pace.
Napoli, despite using the whole width of the pitch to huge effect, were restricted to long shots. It seemed after the early flurry of goals that both teams were eager to rectify their defensive mistakes by keeping things shut at the back.
That lasted until the 35th minute. Walter Gargano used his wicked pace to break away from Van Bommel and with three attacking options, pushed it out to Cavani who crashed the ball past Abbiati to make it 2-1. Napoli were making the most of the pace difference between their midfielders and the older but more experiences Milan midfielders, Seedorf and Van Bommel. The much younger Aquilani almost made it even, but a brilliant save by De Sanctis kept the Campania side in front as they tried to see out the final minutes before half time.
When half time eventually came it was still the San Paolo favourites who were ahead. Milan had dominated the possession but they lacked the creative spark to make space and get their second. Napoli, on the other hand, used whatever possession they had wonderfully, making slick passes, well timed runs and Cavani looked confident pushing past the gritty Milan defence.
Napoli came out of the blocks better in the second half and in the 50th minute a cross came into the box, deflected off the heel of a Milan player and into the path of Cavani who hit it home to get his hatrick. The obviously ecstatic Cavani ran off to the crowds to celebrate what looked like a historic night at the San Paolo.
Pato, who had done nothing in the first half, became increasingly aggressive and in an attempt to get a penalty, threw himself to the floor. It was not to be though. The referee spotted his dive and he
received a yellow for his antics. While Cavani was playing majestically it was obvious that the Milan duo of Pato and Cassano were becoming frustrated by the lack of creativity and support.
Nesta was also unsatisfied and after a challenge by Aronica, which made contact, jumped to his feet and pushed his challenger to the ground and he was lucky escape with a yellow. After that the game went to slow period for over twenty minutes. Few opportunities were created but never came to fruition and both sides were gifted set pieces but couldn’t capitalise on them.
Cavani had a weak attempt which went wide and Napoli almost suffered on the counter attack when Abbiati booted it downfield but Pato couldn’t finish it. In the final minutes Milan carved out a few opportunities, a cross that ran in front of goal the pick of the bunch, but again lacked the final touch to pinch one back. It was a poor second half but that really didn’t matter to the San Paolo crowd who were jubilant when the final whistle echoed around the stadium.
Milan will be disappointed with their performance. They were slow to cope with the counter attack and it cost them in the end. Their biggest problem though was their inability to create chances. They looked lethargic when attacking at times and after the first goal found it difficult to break down the Napoli defence.
The value of the result can’t be understated for Napoli. Despite looking like a challenger last season, they were unable to beat either of the Milan teams in the league and this result shows great progress towards that final goal of the Serie A title. Just as satisfying will be the performance that came with the result. They were creative, devastating on the counter attack and, despite the poor start, the defence was solid and kept their shape well, limiting the Rossoneri attack to few chances. This night will hopefully kick start Napoli’s run for the title but they need to keep the momentum rolling, next week brings Fiorentina to the San Paolo.