Many conclusions can be drawn from the fact that one of the most anticipated, important and defining matches of the 2010-2011 Serie A season is the second outing between AC Milan and Napoli (first and third in the table before the Monday night fixture). Few tipped either team to be among the heavy favorites for the Scudetto before the start of the season; Milan have an aged squad in the process of reconstruction and Napoli, on paper at least, are a good but by no means spectacular side. For the cynic, this may suggest that the quality of Serie A has been below average this term. The realist may note that other big teams have been punching below their weight and that this has given the two teams the unlikely chance to go to the top of the table. The optimist, however, will rejoice at the fact that Napoli, the sleeping giant of the south, is putting the power balance of Italian football into question and acknowledge that, despite Milan’s weaknesses, they have been the best team in the league. However you look at it, the fixture between Milan and Napoli was a match of the highest importance in terms of the title race.

Milan expose Napoli’s limitations in a match of poor quality

Napoli, indeed, have been the toast of Serie A this season. They have played some dynamic and entertaining, if a bit reactive, football, plus they have undoubtedly one of the best forwards in Europe in Edison Cavani who has already notched twenty goals to his name (many of which have been nothing short of spectaqular). Before the game Napoli were only three points behind the league leaders so a win at the San Siro would put them level with the Rossoneri and once and for all make them a title candidate.

Milan had other ideas though. What was perhaps supposed to be Napoli’s and Cavani’s chance to shine turned out to be a moment for Alexandre Pato (a player who has gone a bit forgotten this season) who put in a vintage second half performance. The 21-year-old Brazilian inspired the home team to a convincing 3-0 victory as he provided the assist for the second goal and scored a splendid third.

Despite, and perhaps because of, the importance of the fixture, the game itself wasn’t the most memorable of events. The first half was a nervous affair that saw plenty of misplaced passes by both teams and little goalmouth action at either end of the pitch. Napoli tried to take advantage of Milan’s narrow midfield with their trademark flying wing play but the wide midfielders/wing-backs Cristian Maggio (who particularly had a dreadful match on the right) and Andrea Dossena were poor in their passing, sloppy in their crossing and never looked like providing the penetration needed to rattle Milan’s organised defence. Furthermore, due to an excellent performance by Mark Van Bommel in the holding role for the home team, the visitors, and Giuseppe Mascara playing in place of Ezequiel Lavezzi, weren’t able to build any kind of platform in the centre of their attacking third. As a result, despite his tremendous work effort, Cavani was largely ineffective in and around the penalty area.

Milan didn’t look that threatening either on their attacking third and their best (half-)chances came courtesy of the visitors who were, at times, extremely careless in opening play from the back. With little room in midfield, as both Mascara and Marek Hamsik tracked back efficiently, Milan’s build-up play in the first period was limited mostly to long passes played from deep midfield positions. In the second half Milan looked like a different team though. They added tempo and pressed Napoli aggressively further up the pitch and this way the balance of the game shifted more and more to the Napoli end. The inclusion of Kevin-Prince Boateng in place of the full-back Marek Jankulovski increased the home team’s momentum even more as Napoli’s tired defence found it hard to cope with Boateng’s direct running. The Ghanaian capped his excellent performance by scoring the second goal of the game on the 77th minute with a close range finish to a Pato cross after Zlatan Ibrahimovic had put the hosts ahead from the penalty spot in the early stages of the second half. Pato then put the match beyond doubt with a coolly placed shot from twenty meters to the right hand top corner.

Milan showcased the deficiencies of this Napoli team that live by their industry and clinical counter-attacking, and of course by Cavani’s goals. First of all, Milan were successful in taking out the speed from Napoli’s attacking transitions by keeping enough players behind the ball at all times even when in possession (the players further up the pitch were quick to apply pressure on the Napoli player initiating the attack and the midfielders stayed close to Mascara and Hamsik whose job it is to provide the penetration in the attacking third). Also the Milan centre-backs, Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva, did a professional job in back-pocketing the industrious Cavani who was left isolated up-front.

Meanwhile around Italy:

Palermo-Udinese 0-7: 0-7. 0-7! 7-0. No matter how you look at the result, the numbers simply seem impossible: 0-7!?!!!? An utterly improbable defeat by a team that were supposed to be rock-solid at home. You might have had your suspicions after Palermo’s unfolding at home to Fiorentina two weeks ago, but after this embarrassment Palermo can forget any illusions they might have had of occupying a stronghold. But hey, who cares about the losers, we should be congratulating Udinese, undoubtedly the most exiting team in Serie A at the moment. Udinese play thrilling and balanced attacking football and they do it without any huge star players. At Palermo Alexis Sanchez scored no less than four goals and Antonio Di Natale got three and they took their goals totals to 11 and 21 respectively. And even though the annihilation may have been in breach of the unwritten code of ethics of calcio, Udinese gave the impression that they were simply being courteous with the scoreline. After all, it was 6-0 after only 48 minutes. The Zebretta are now fifth and only a single point behind fourth placed Lazio.

Juventus-Bologna 0-2: Juve clearly think they are too good to show up against the weaker teams. The new dawn talked about in this blog after the triumph of the Inter match has turned out to be a persistent hangover. Since beating Inter with a convincing performance two weeks ago, Juventus have recorded back-to-back 2-0 defeats (away to Lecce and at home against Bologna). This Juve team, and come to think of it the post-calciopoli Juventus, want to have their cake and eat it as well. After decades of success, Juvetus refuse to settle for anything less than the Scudetto and even though the squad should have enough quality to put in a believable title challenge, Juve are by no means good enough to consider themselves worthy of an automatic shot at the title. Luigi Delneri, the Juve coach and the man whose future hangs in the balance after these rubbish performances, clearly knows this as well: “For some reason, we are not able to face the easy games with the right determination. We cannot afford to make any more mistakes in our remaining games.” Too bad the players clearly don’t want to hear it.