Mario Balotelli’s suspension will see Giampaolo Pazzini lead the line for AC Milan, while Kevin-Prince Boateng continues to be preferred to M’Baye Niang on the right side of attack. Aside from Riccardo Montolivo, Massimiliano Allegri has rotated his midfielders throughout the season but Sulley Muntari and Mathieu Flamini currently appear to be in favour. Similarly Mattia De Sciglio now appears to be first choice left back ahead of Kevin Constant.
Walter Mazzarri has no absentees, but will continue to choose between Miguel Britos and Alessandro Gamberini in defence, and Blerim Dzemaili and Gokhan Inler in midfield.
With seven games to go in Serie A both sides appear secure in the remaining Champions League places, with Milan possessing a 6 point lead over 4th placed Fiorentina, yet neither team can either expect to mount a serious challenge to Juventus, who have a 9 point lead at the top. Nevertheless Napoli will hope a victory can take advantage of any negative reaction to Juventus’ Champions League exit, whilst Milan won’t want to lose ground to the chasing pack.
Few teams in Europe could mirror each other so closely whilst using such diverse systems as Milan and Napoli. Both sides have opposing midfield triangles: Muntari and Flamini will compete with Dzemaili and Valon Behrami in the centre of the pitch, whilst Montolivo will occupy the same space as Marek Hamsik. Milan’s relatively narrow attacking trio – Stephan El Shaarawy looks to attack through the middle whilst Boateng is more accustomed to playing centrally – find themselves matched by Napoli’s back three. At the other end Napoli’s forward pair are marked by Milan’s central defenders, and on the flanks the home side’s full backs can engage the opposing wing backs.
The question is will this arrangement be sought by either manager? Allegri will certainly be happy to engineer 3 vs 3 in attack, but will be less keen to allow Edison Cavani and Goran Pandev to isolate Philippe Mexes and Cristian Zapata, whilst Montolivo may not be the best defence against Montolivo. By contrast Mazzarri will want his wing backs to help contain Milan’s wide forwards. This need for tactical adjustments is precisely what makes this particular contest fascinating.
Napoli’s Wing Backs
Mazzarri’s positioning of Juan Zuniga and Christian Maggio will be the most influential adjustment. Should they drop goal side of El Shaarawy and Boateng, Napoli would have a 5 vs 3 advantage in defence, but Milan’s full backs would have license to advance unopposed. Should Zuniga and Maggio advance themselves and engage De Sciglio and Ignazio Abate they would be able to press the home side’s back four, but leave themselves vulnerable in defence.
In reality Mazzarri will probably use a mixture of these two options initially, with both wing backs alternating who goes forward and who stays back, before adapting the plan as the game situation dictates.
Montolivo vs Hamsik
The direct contest between Montolivo and Hamsik will be a key factor in determining which side comes out victorious. The two players represent the two types of modern playmaker. Montolivo looks to dictate the tempo from deep whilst also offering a defensive shield, whilst Hamsik is a mobile creator capable of energetic pressing and intelligent lateral movement.
Montolivo may have more players ahead of him, and therefore more targets for his incisive passing, but Hamsik surely has the advantage. Both players have defensive responsibilities, but Montolivo is required to be more disciplined by remaining ahead of his centre backs, and therefore is unlikely to follow Hamsik when he drifts to the flanks. Even if he were permitted to do so it is unlikely he would have the energy or pace to stay with the Slovakian.
A game of arguably more interest than importance. Even so, Napoli will want to maintain pressure on Juventus until the very end, possibly in the hope of convincing Cavani to stay for another season. Milan can continue an unlikely season in which they lost half a team and yet have stumbled on a functional, cohesive unit. Finishing in their current position of 3rd would be an excellent return for a side that won only 2 of their first 8 games, so to better that would be even more impressive.