Matchday 8 of Serie A will wrap up with a top-of-the-table clash as Napoli, who currently sit in third position, host AC Milan, the league leaders, on Sunday, Nov. 22 at 2:45 p.m. EST.
While both Napoli and Milan have so far enjoyed strong momentum in Serie A, this past week the two clubs have struggled with injuries, coronavirus positive cases, and internal issues that may have affected their physical and mental preparation to Sunday’s crucial game.
Milan: Transfer Rumors And Pioli’s Absence
Milan are leading the 2020/21 Serie A campaign thanks to an enviable record of five wins, two draws, and zero losses.
Ivan Gazidis, Milan’s chief executive officer, recently said in a ESPN interview that he is very optimistic about the club’s growth potential but revealed that Milan need to reduce the size of their wage bill. Currently adding up to €90 million, Milan’s total spending on wages is the fifth-highest in Serie A.
Among the most expensive players on Milan roster are starting goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma and attacking midfielder Hakan Çalhanoğlu, both of whom will be running out of contract at the end of the 2020/21 Serie A season.
SkySport reported that Donnarumma’s agent, Mino Raiola, will agree to sign an extension only when he sees a significant increase in his client’s annual salary, which currently sits at €6 million.
Çalhanoğlu, who has taken over the starting role as trequartista in Milan’s formation, is on a €3.5 million/year net salary. A TuttoSport article reported that Çalhanoğlu’s agent, Gordon Stipic, is determined to double the size of that figure, a request that Milan might not be able to satisfy.
For that reason, there have been talks about the possibility for Milan to enter negotiations with arch-enemy Inter to swap Çalhanoğlu with the Nerazzurri midfielder Christian Eriksen.
This weekend, Milan traveled to Naples without their manager Stefano Pioli and assistant manager Giacomo Murelli, as both tested positive for the coronavirus.
The match at Stadio San Paolo will be the first time that Daniele Bonera, former Milan defender and current member of Pioli’s coaching staff, takes charge of the Rossoneri bench.
Winger Rafael Leão, so far a key contributor to Milan’s success in Serie A thanks to three assists and two goals, will also not be available against Napoli due to injury.
Napoli: Victor Osimhen Out With Shoulder Injury
The Partenopei have so far collected 14 points in the 2020/21 Serie A season and are just three points shy of Milan.
Napoli’s owner Aurelio de Laurentiis is still furious at Lega Serie A, who decided to assign Napoli a 3-0 loss by forfeit and a penalty point in the table for not showing up in the Oct. 4 game against Juventus. Gazzetta dello Sport explained that De Laurentiis is determined to appeal that decision to CONI, the Italian National Olympic Committee, to have the game against the Bianconeri rescheduled and obtain the penalty point back in the Serie A standings.
In the meantime, Napoli have verbally agreed with manager Gennaro Gattuso on the terms of a contract extension, Gazzetta dello Sport reported. Gattuso, who is expected to sign in the upcoming weeks, will receive €1.9 million/year until 2023.
Napoli also need to decide what do with the expiring contracts of defenders Nikola Maksimović and Elseid Hysaj, or they will risk having to release them for free at the end of the 2020/21 Serie A season. Hysaj will sit out of Sunday’s game against Milan due to testing positive for Covid-19.
However, the biggest absentee for the Partenopei in Sunday’s prestigious match-up is Victor Osimhen. The Nigerian center-forward, who was signed last summer by Napoli for a club’s record transfer fee of €70 million, has been a key addition to Gattuso’s dynamic attack with two goals, one assist, and an admirable desire to work off the ball.
A shoulder injury occurred during last week’s game with the Nigeria national team will force Osimhen to watch his teammates battle Milan from the stands.
Lineups And Keys To The Game
Napoli will line up in either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3. Fabián Ruiz, who has recorded an impressive 92% pass completion rate this season, will partner up with Tiémoué Bakayoko in the middle of the field. The 21-year-old Macedonian international, Elif Elmas, is set to occupy the attacking-midfielder position.
Napoli’s “false nine” will be Dries Mertens, supported by wingers Lorenzo Insigne and one between Matteo Politano and Hirving Lozano.
Gattuso will not rely on the physical prowess of his attacking players to win the game, as none of them clears the 5’7” mark. Instead, it is through shifty plays and quick one-two combinations in tight spaces that Napoli’s offensive trio will try to undermine the solidity of Milan’s defense.
Insigne’s form is particularly astonishing, as shown by his brilliant performances with the Italy national team last week. It will be key for Milan’s right winger, Alexis Saelemaekers, and center midfielders, Ismaël Bennacer and Franck Kessié, to help out right full-back Davide Calabria during Milan’s defensive phase: The last thing the Rossoneri want to do is leave Insigne isolated in one-versus-one situations, where his dribbling skills, ball control, and decision-making are simply lethal.
Milan, who will similarly line up in a 4-2-3-1, are second in the league for total crosses (43), according to data from the Lega Serie A website. This is why we should expect to see the Rossoneri serving balls in the box with consistency throughout the game.
These crosses will look for 6’5” center-forward, Zlatan Ibrahimović, the current Serie A capocannoniere with eight goals in five matches.
Ibrahimović might step down from the role of penalty-kick taker for his side. He has missed four of the last six attempts from the 12-yard spot, registering the lowest penalty-kick conversion rate in Europe’s top-5 leagues this season. Kessié should take over this responsibility on Sunday should the referee point to the spot.
With a win, Napoli will catch Milan on 17 points in the Serie A table. Milan, in turn, have a great chance to widen the gap between themselves and a direct rival in the race to secure a Champions League spot.
Milan’s last win at Stadio San Paolo dates back to more than 10 years ago. In that game, the Rossoneri squad featured Ibrahimović, Gattuso, and Bonera, all of whom will play a crucial role in Sunday’s highly-anticipated match-up.