The fight for Europe continued in the Serie A as 3rd placed Milan faced 2nd place Napoli. Juventus have a clear path through to the Serie A crown but its the teams below them than are competing for places. Games like this one at the San Siro can be crucial for teams who have aspirations for the Champions League next season.
Milan were without Balotelli who was suspended for 3 games while El Sharaawy started (surprisingly) on the bench. Allegri opted to go with Robinho and Boateng either side of Pazzini in place of Niang and Sharaawy.
The game was a closely fought affair. Napoli should feel disappointed at not taking advantage of Flamini’s red card. Milan however continued to look to get the victory despite being down to 10 men for the last 20 minutes.
The final score of AC Milan 1-1 Napoli seemed a fair reflection of the game. This result brought an end to Milan’s 100% record at home in the last 9 games in all competitions. It was also the first time that Milan drew a game at the San Siro this season. With 6 games left Napoli still hold a 4 point lead over Milan, who are consequently 4 points ahead of 4th place Fiorentina.
This was always going to be a tight game but Milan made the early running with Napoli resorting to counters. Morgan de Sanctis was kept busy in the first half as the home side constantly attacked getting 9 shots across. The Napoli defence seemed a bit disorganised that was in sync with the rest of the side. The gap between the defence and attack was shamelessly large. The midfield trio were almost given free roles. Behrami stayed in midfield but Dzemaili was constantly taking the ball down the flanks, forcing Maggio to go narrow. Hamsik made his usual runs from deep in midfield, and often just stayed there.
This gap between the attack and defence was reflected in Milan’s play as well. The front three kept pushing forward, pulling the midfield with them. It meant there was a massive hole in midfield just tempting to be exploited but no one really took their chances. It also resulted in an exciting game (especially the first 45) with end-to-end action. Much of the game was played around each teams box.
As the picture shows, there was a huge gap in the middle of the park, very unlike Mazzari. It was Milan who could have most benefited from this space. Muntari who mainly stayed deep in midfield would occasionally make a run forward and be offered tons of space.
As seen here the Napoli midfield were disjointed, failing to cover the space and inviting Milan midfielders forward. The defence remained tight in the box that prevented the Milan player on the ball to really make any difference with the ball.
However, give a midfielder too much space around the box and he will punish you. AC Milan were constantly able to pick up the second balls. De Sanctis was kept busy, with Kevin-Prince Boateng taking a couple of effort before going off injured. It was one of these poor marking/space around the box that gave Milan their goal. Good play in the final third ended up with a falling Pazzini laying the ball off to Flamini, who made a late run into the box. The Frenchman’s run was not tracked by any Napoli player and he took a first time shot, past De Sanctis.
11 of AC Milan’s 14 shots (including the goal) was taken from outside the box. While Napoli made it tight in defence, preventing the front 3 of Robinho (subbed for Sharaawy), Pazzini and Boateng (subbed for Niang) any chance inside the box, it was their inability to successfully defend around the edge of the box that could have cost them.
Milan’s lead lasted under 4 minutes with Napoli replying back almost instantly. In the previous attacks, Napoli had men forward but failed to release the ball early. Dzemaili cut inside and failure to take a shot with his left and indecision in releasing the ball early is an example. Hamsik also had one opportunity where he moved forward with the ball, Pandev pulled away from Zapata and had Hamsik put the ball through a second early, the Macedonian striker was clean through. Instead Mexes who is always willing to take a risk and move forward to defend, risking a gap at the back, was able to intercept and steal the ball off Hamsik.
The Slovakian midfielder was not deterred though, he made his runs in again (leaving gaps in midfield) and played a quality ball through to Pandev and he made no mistake. It was a similar situation to the previous opportunity. This time Zapata moved to cover the flanks, leaving a massive gap in defence, which Montolivo attempted to cover but failed to.
Milan were already without some key personnel, losing Boateng was another blow. The Ghanaian could have had a more telling contribution to the game had he played more than the 36 minutes. Besides taking a few shots, Boateng was constantly moving into attacking areas, almost playing as a striker. Robinho was playing a bit more deeper on the other side but more often than not the home side had men in the box, and midfielders made late runs in as well. Niang initially failed to adeptly replace Boateng in an attacking sense but slowly settled in. It can be seen once again, Napoli invited Milan into dangerous areas.
This trend continued even after Milan went down to 10 men as Napoli were inefficient in taking advantage. Besides the Milan players body language, you couldn’t tell that one side was playing with a man less. Walter Mazzarri would have been rightly angered and frustrated by this. The game continued the same way even after the dismissal and Milan continued to get men in the box in search of victory.
As the game wore on Milan lost control of the midfield (how much of it existed) and their biggest attacking threat was down either flank. Constant and Abate regularly ran down the channels, offering an attacking avenue.
Milan however failed to make full use of this attacking avenue. Only 8 of their 26 crosses found their intended target. The Napoli defence won 10 aerial duels between them, which could reflect Milan’s failure with crosses.
Given a point at the San Siro, no doubt Walter Mazzarri and co. would have gladly taken it. But with a man advantage for much of the 2nd half, it is a disappointment they couldn’t get a bit more. One of the primary reasons for Napoli’s failure in front of goals was the isolation of Edison Cavani. Napoli occasionally resorted to long balls over the top to the lone man, this however was ineffective. Cavani failed to win a single aerial duel, while Milan’s central defensive duo of Mexes-Zapata won 8. There was only one occasion where a long ball actually worked. Captain Paolo Cannavaro played a lovely ball over the top and above the Milan defence. Cavani pulled away behind took a neat first touch but failed to loft it over Abbiati.
Napoli attempted to score once they had the man advantage. Calaio came on but to no avail. Cavani remained isolated in the final third, compared to the 3 men AC Milan always had. Not enough men were making runs into the box, and the Uruguayan had a poor game.
Giampaolo Pazzini has to be mentioned here as well. The striker spoke this week of partnering Balotelli for Milan and the Italian national team. This was a good audition for the 28-year-old. He however failed to make any impact in the game. For much of the game he was too stationary, compared to the dynamic wide men either side of him. He finished the game with a 100% passing rate, a stat Xavi Hernandez is usually proud of. But the striker made just 6 passes all game, playing the entire 90 minutes. He didn’t get involved, didn’t drop deep enough, got just one shot off and was largely absent from the game. Mario Balotelli was well and truly missed by Allegri.
Crucial part of AC Milan on the night was their success with tackles. 22 of their 25 tackles proved to be successful. Plenty of which were down the right flank as Abate looked to secure that portion of the field. Plenty of tackles were won in midfield as well. Out of the 22 tackles won, 10 were shared equally between Montolivo and Abate, which reflects in the above graph as well.
Most shots attempted- Edison Cavani (4)
Most goal scoring opportunities creared- Robinho (4)
Most tackles- Riccardo Montolivo & Ignazio Abate (5)
Most interceptions- Miguel Britos (4)
Most clearances- Paolo Cannavaro (12)
Most passes attempted- Riccardo Montolivo (62)
With just 6 games to go, points in games like this are crucial. Napoli are 8 points ahead of Fiorentina in 4th spot and Champions League qualification shouldn’t be a problem. They’ve tracked Juventus for much of the season and being 8 points behind top spot, Serie A looks out of their reach. They deserve to finish 2nd, the spot they’ve occupied for much of the season.
For Milan, the season started so poorly that anything now would be a bonus. Champions League qualification is a must, but with Fiorentina impressing this season, its far from safe.