x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The welcome return of a classic Milan-Napoli rivalry

The tussle for Serie A title is bringing back memories of their famous battles for supremacy in the 1980s. Leagues around the world

AC Milan's Sokratis Papastathopoulos, right, and Napoli's Edinson Cavani contest a ball during their October meeting.
AC Milan's Sokratis Papastathopoulos, right, and Napoli's Edinson Cavani contest a ball during their October meeting.

It has been another chastening February for the self-esteem of Serie A. Little wonder then that Monday night's confrontation between the top two clubs in the table arrives bathed in nostalgia for the time when Italian football dominated the continent.

Back then, AC Milan-Napoli was as elite a club fixture as could be found on the planet. Two decades later, it has the makings of a compelling local epic.

Napoli last Thursday became the latest, and the last, Italian team to be eliminated from the Europa League, a competition that since its rebranding and renaming from the old Uefa Cup has sneered at Italy's candidates. The Champions League has been unkind lately, too, with Roma, Inter and Milan all now facing second-leg journeys in their last 16 ties next month with a deficit of goals to make up.

So domestic pre-eminence has been catapulted to the foreground. A win for Napoli at the San Siro would put them equal on points, in first place, with Milan.

Jousts between these two clubs have not had such stakes for the best part of 20 years. In those days, Milan and Napoli would compete for honours on all fronts, well into each May. In 1989, Milan won the first of successive European Cups while Napoli triumphed in the Uefa Cup. The next season, Napoli collected their second scudetto in four years, regaining the Serie A initiative taken from them by Milan in 1988. Thus was the duel in the years leading up to Italy's hosting the World Cup, a rivalry spiked by the fierce enmity and a highly politicised division between north and south, and glamorised by the identity of the players.

For Napoli in the late 1980s, Diego Maradona was the hero. Visit the Sao Paolo stadium now and his image remains ubiquitous. His Napoli, rowdy, upstart champions not only had a Maradona at the peak of his powers, they had the brilliant Brazilian centre-forward Careca. Gianfranco Zola was emerging as gifted inside-forward, Ciro Ferrara as a rugged defender.

Italy was last week reflecting on some of this storied past because Silvio Berlusconi, amid some awkward scrutiny over his conduct as the Italian prime minister, celebrated the 25th anniversary of his becoming president of AC Milan.

It was to challenge an ambitious Napoli, who had set a world-record transfer fee to sign Maradona, that Berlusconi revamped a weakened institution in 1986. He would do so in spectacular fashion, importing players such as Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten, and combating Maradona with defensive experts like Frank Rijkaard and Franco Baresi.

Comparisons between then and now do neither club great favours. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is no Gullit and Edinson Cavani is no Careca. As for a No 10, Napoli sensibly retired Maradona's shirt years ago.

Napoli have gone through bankruptcy and were in the third tier of Italian football six seasons ago, yet they have acquired the knack of overcoming more prestigious opponents as they moved up.

It has been a remarkable rise. "We haven't got this far by accident," said Napoli's coach Walter Mazzarri, "and we intend to make Milan respect us."

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Spain: Benzema in favour

Real Madrid head into a crucial phase of the season trailing Barcelona by five points, and that could be up to eight points by the time Jose Mourinho’s team kicks off against Deportivo tonight. Barcelona face Real Mallorca prior to Real’s match.

A 1-1 draw with Lyon in the Champions League this week was not ideal for Real. But the performance of the former Lyon striker Karim Benzema, who came off the bench to score the 100th goal of his career, was encouraging.

Considering that Benzema scored twice in the away match at Deportivo last season, he could be pushing to start.

“He is fit to be a starter at Real Madrid,” Mourinho said. “He has made progress on all aspects of the game.”

The Real midfielder Sami Khedira will miss the game due to a thigh muscle injury.

France: Reveillere is ready

Lyon defender Anthony Reveillere was put to the test by Real Madrid’s superstars in midweek and he predicts tomorrow’s clash with league leaders Lille will provide a similar challenge.

Lyon are in fourth place, only four points behind Lille and on the heels of Rennes and Marseille. Reveillere knows this match is pivotal for Lyon, whose title ambitions would be severely knocked by a loss.

“[It] will be like a Champions League match because we’re playing the league leaders at their home,” he said. “We are in good competitive shape. We know this is a big match ahead of us and we have the right psychological preparation.”

With Lille not in action until tomorrow, second-place Rennes have a chance to climb to the top of the table for the moment by beating second-bottom Lens today. Marseille plays at Nancy tomorrow.

Germany: Freiburg on target

Freiburg are hoping to break through the 40-point barrier today when they play at Cologne, with a chance to reach their target for the season with 10 games still to be played.

Robin Dutt’s side have been a surprise, with many having predicted they would be relegated. A win today would put them in position to contend for a spot in the Champions League next season.

Cologne, however, have won their past four home matches. “It is going to be very tough,” Dutt said. “Frank Schafer has brought some fresh wind to the club and created a positive atmosphere.”

Also today, Mainz, in joint fifth with Freiburg, face fourth-place Hoffenheim. After winning their first seven matches, Mainz have lost four of their past five.

The Mainz coach Thomas Tuchel said he plans no major changes. “We have got to stick at it and carry on the way we are going,” he said.

Holland: Ajax look to close in

Third-placed Ajax have a chance to make up ground tomorrow with a game at league leaders PSV Eindhoven.

PSV are five points ahead of Ajax but only three clear of second place Twente, the reigning champions, who play tomorrow at AZ Alkmaar.

Twente have won six of their last nine games and manager Michel Preud’homme believes the team will defend their title. “Since the start of the season we have only played important games,” he said. “Whether in the Champions League, cup or big league matches, the players have been well prepared and I see no change in their behaviour.”

Also, relegation-threatened Feyenoord host the Champions League hopefuls FC Groningen in a match proving significant for the teams at both ends of the table.

Groningen will be looking to get over last weekend’s shock 4-1 defeat to Roda JC.