AC Milan will renew hostilities with a team they played four times last season when they take on Napoli at San Siro on Sunday night in Serie A.
Milan come into the game off the back of another comeback away win, this time against Frosinone, while they welcome a side who have had anything but a smooth Scudetto defence.
In his pre-match press conference, Stefano Pioli made it clear that a lot remains of the season, convinced that Milan can do well for the rest of. He also stated that the Rossoneri will have to be ‘compact’ in midfield tomorrow.
Game date: Sunday, February 11
Kick-off time: 20:45 (CET)
Venue: San Siro
Referee: Daniele Doveri (VAR: Di Paolo)
The absentees heading into this one for Milan are well known, with Tommaso Pobega, Fikayo Tomori and Pierre Kalulu expected to miss some time yet as they recover from serious muscle problems.
In addition to those three, Tijjani Reijnders will not be available for the game given that he picked up a yellow card against Frosinone thus triggering a one-game ban. It will be the first game he has missed all season.
The good news is that Malick Thiaw returned to training with the rest of the squad on Friday, but it is too soon for him to make a full return as a period of building up fitness is needed.
Pioli has a duty to take things one game at a time and is not thinking about the midweek fixture against Stade Rennais in the Europa League.
With this in mind, the expectation is that he will field a full-strength squad, given they could go 17 points ahead of the visitors on Sunday with a victory.
Mike Maignan will be shielded by Davide Calabria, Simon Kjaer, Matteo Gabbia and Theo Hernandez meaning there should be no changes to the defence. Both Kjaer and Gabbia will be keen to impress, with Thiaw returning shortly.
Yacine Adli will start once again, but he will be partnered by the returning Ismael Bennacer, who is once again ready for selection from the start.
Ahead of them, the attacking line-up will remain the same. Ruben Loftus-Cheek will operate as the attacking midfielder, as is a commodity now. He will be flanked by Christian Pulisic and Rafael Leao, and Olivier Giroud will lead the line.
Probable Milan XI (4-2-3-1): Maignan; Calabria, Kjaer, Gabbia, Hernandez; Adli, Bennacer; Pulisic, Loftus-Cheek, Leao; Giroud.
Napoli were in Scudetto heaven last season after ending their long wait to be crowned champions, but things seem to have unravelled from that moment that they were on top of the world.
Luciano Spalletti left as head coach, replaced by Rudi Garcia, while in the summer window Kim-Min Jae, Eljif Elmas and Andrea Petagna left to raise some cash.
Victor Osimhen and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia hung around, joined by the likes of Jens Cajuste, Natan and Jesper Lindstrom, plus Giacomo Raspadori and Giovanni Simeone who were bought permanently.
After a rocky start to the season, Garcia was sacked in mid-November and replaced by the ‘ferryman’ Walter Mazzarri, who has similarly struggled to get a tune out of the team.
Any hopes of a title defence were done well before Christmas, while defeats to Fiorentina, Empoli, Inter, Juventus, Roma and Torino have made top four an outside chance at this stage.
In terms of team news, Osimhen will take the field in the African Cup of Nations final with Nigeria and thus will not be available, while Mario Rui is suspended. Sergio Olivera and Alex Meret are about to return to group training and could return.
According to the local press in Naples, Mazzarri has decided that it is time to change from a 4-3-3 to a three-man defence, with Ostigard, Juan Jesus and Rrahmani the trio he is expected to pick.
Di Lorenzo and Mazzocchi are tipped to be the wing-backs, with Sky having Anguissa, Lobotka and Zielinski as a midfield three. Kvaratskhelia would then play behind Simeone.
Probable Napoli XI (3-5-1-1): Gollini; Ostigard, Rrahmani, Juan Jesus; Di Lorenzo, Anguissa, Lobotka, Zielinski, Mazzocchi; Kvaratskhelia; Simeone.
Head to head
There are only seven teams that Milan have played more in their 124-year history than Napoli, with a total of 174 encounters across all competitions. Of those, 69 were wins for the Rossoneri with 54 draws and 51 defeats, at a win rate of 39.7%.
Last season the two teams played each other four times. Napoli won 2-1 in the league at San Siro then Milan humbled the champions elect 4-0 at the Maradona in April.
That was 10 days before the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final clash, which Pioli’s men won 1-0 at San Siro before getting a 1-1 draw away to get through on aggregate.
Earlier this season the sides drew 2-2 in Naples. Giroud scored a quick fire brace to put the away team in command, but then Politano and Raspadori scored in the second half to rescue a point.
➤ Milan and Napoli are equal in their last 10 encounters in Serie A, with three wins each and four draws. This is after the Neapolitans had recorded seven wins in their 10 previous matches against the Rossoneri in the competition (D2 L1).
➤ After the 2-2 draw in the reverse fixture, Milan and Napoli could draw both seasonal Serie A encounters for the first time since 2019-20 (1-1 at Meazza and 2-2 at Maradona in that case).
➤ Milan have drawn 26 of their 75 home matches against Napoli in Serie A (W32 L17), only drawing more such games against Juventus (34) in the competition. Meanwhile, only against Roma (29) have the Neapolitans recorded more draws away from home in the top-flight.
➤ Since the second half of last December, Milan have won 2.5 points per game on average in Serie A (W6 D2) – only fewer than Inter (2.7) in this period in the competition.
➤ Milan have both scored and conceded at least two goals in each of their last three league matches – they have never recorded four matches in a row when scoring 2+ and conceding 2+ goals in their history in Serie A.
➤ Napoli have not scored a single goal in their last four league away games (D1 L3), last failing to score for more consecutive matches on the road in the top-flight between May and December 1979 (a run of 6).
➤ Milan are the team that have scored the most goals via substitute players in Serie A this term (10); in the last 20 Serie A seasons (since 2004-05), the Rossoneri have scored more goals with players coming off the bench only twice in an entire league campaign: 12 in 2010-11 and 11 in 2011-12.
➤ Olivier Giroud has scored five goals against Napoli (four away from home), more than against any other opponent with Milan in all competitions.
➤ The French striker has been involved in 19 goals (11 goals, 8 assists) in 20 league appearances this season, which is already his most with the Rossoneri in a single Serie A campaign – he last took part in 20+ goals in a season in the top five European Leagues in 2015-16 (22 with Arsenal).
➤ Since the start of December 2023 (when he scored his first goal in Serie A with Milan), Luka Jovic has the best min/goals ratio in the big 5 European Leagues (min. 5 goals scored): one goal each 41 minutes played on average.
➤ Only Cristhian Stuani (5) has scored more goals as a substitute than Jovic (4) in the top five European leagues this season.
➤ Matteo Politano has scored five goals against Milan in Serie A, his joint-most against an opponent in the top-flight (also 5 against Genoa).
➤ Four of Politano’s five goals against the Rossoneri have come at the Meazza – since 2016-17, only Edin Dzeko (5) has scored more away goals against the Rossoneri in Serie A.
Ones to watch
That Serie A goal drought keeps getting longer for Leao, and how he would love to end it against an opponent down the left side – Giovanni Di Lorenzo – that he has gotten the better of quite a bit in recent times.
Giroud will be looking to build off his two-goal-contribution night in Frosinone, while it will be interesting to seen how an Adli-Bennacer double pivot looks, especially ahead of Kjaer-Gabbia who must keep attention levels high.
Napoli have had a big drop-off from their two main men Kvaratskhelia and Osimhen this season, for various reasons. Both have nine goal contributions, with the Georgian on six goals and the Nigerian on seven.
Di Lorenzo has been his usual creative self from right-back with four league assists, and Raspadori has contributed to five goals, but the feeling is that the attack isn’t clicking the same.
The likes of Rrahmani, Zielinski, Politano, Kvara, Lobotka and Di Lorenzi have been near ever-presents in the team with each making 17 or more starts.
Predicting a clean sheet for Milan seems foolish at the moment even against a side missing a player like Osimhen, but while the plan to keep outscoring opponents might not be sustainable we hope it continues on Sunday.
Milan 2-1 Napoli