Napoli get back on track at Milan but can either side really win Serie A?

The lights went out at San Siro on Sunday, plunging the stadium into darkness for a few moments before Milan’s game at home to Napoli. All part of the show – switched off so they could be switched back on again – a visual metaphor for a curtain being raised.

And why not? This was the last big event of the year at a venue that styles itself as football’s answer to La Scala, the Milan opera house. A Sunday night symphony featuring two of the best teams in Italy, aspiring candidates for a Serie A title. They promised us 90 minutes of captivating drama. They gave us maybe 10, most of those wrapped up in a contrived final act.

At kick-off, Milan sat second in the table, with Napoli three points behind. It was not so long ago that these teams were joint-top. At the start of November they had matching unbeaten records – each of them launching their campaigns with 10 wins and a draw. Back then it seemed inevitable that one of the two sides would make it to Christmas in first place.

Yet each has experienced their own winter wobble, losing form at a time of year when the fixtures come thick and fast. These are separate stories with their own internal dynamics but injuries to important players are a common thread.

Milan arrived for this game missing three-quarters of their first-choice defence – Theo Hernández, Davide Calabria and Simon Kjær – as well as attacking options Ante Rebic and Rafael Leão. Napoli were without their record signing, Victor Osimhen, and the captain, Lorenzo Insigne, as well as Kalidou Koulibaly, Fabián Ruiz and Mário Rui.

Any team would suffer the loss of half of its outfield starters. Comunque, the lack of fluidity in both teams’ performances was striking.

Napoli took the lead in the fifth minute, Eljif Elmas heading home from a corner. It was a well-worked move, Andrea Petagna drawing defenders’ attention in front of the goalscorer and Piotr Zielinski pausing in the middle of his runup before the delivery – reviewing the positions of the defence.

It felt like an appropriate way for the game to begin. These teams have scored 11 times each from set-pieces this season – a figure bettered only by Internazionale and Fiorentina. More surprising was the lack of reaction from Milan to falling behind. Infatti, the lack of any action whatsoever.

Neither team produced another shot on target in the entire first-half. Closest was Alessandro Florenzi with a volley from 25 yards. Milan generated a brief spell of pressure after the interval, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Junior Messias demanding saves from David Ospina. But that was about it until Franck Kessié forced the ball into the net in the dying seconds of regular time.

It was a well-taken finish, the midfielder showing composure at a moment when everyone around him seemed to have lost theirs, Napoli defenders throwing themselves in front of the ball and Milan players snatching at shots in a penalty-box scramble. Yet it arrived from nowhere, a moment of fortune for a team who had struggled to generate sustained pressure on the Napoli goal.

Celebrations did not last long. The referee Davide Massa was invited by the VAR booth to conduct a pitchside review. Olivier Giroud, who started the scramble by heading down a cross from the left, had then fallen while in an offside position.

He did not touch the ball again, but it rebounded close to him at one point from the chest of a teammate. The Napoli defender Juan Jesus, who challenged Giroud for the initial header before becoming tangled up with him on the floor, attempted to jab it away. After reviewing the footage, Massa ruled that the striker was interfering with play.

It was a crushing moment for Milan, and the start of a heated debate. On the live broadcast for DAZN, former referee Luca Marelli said that the situation was ambiguous because Giroud did not make any move towards the ball.

Jesus, unsurprisingly, would have a different take after full time. “The rule is clear – it’s active offside and he didn’t let me play,” the defender said. “I could have done better but I had a man on top of me, and Giroud is a big guy.”

Comparisons were inevitably drawn with a goal disallowed for Atalanta during their 4-1 defeat by Roma the night before. When Bryan Cristante deflected the ball into his own net for a second time in the match, VAR overturned the goal because José Luis Palomino had been stood behind him in an offside position.

Atalanta were furious, and on procedural grounds they were right to be. That decision was taken directly by officials in the booth, when it ought to have been referred to the match referee for a pitchside review, as happened at San Siro. Ultimately though, the ruling here did appear more clear-cut. Palomino was in a potential scoring position and had a hand resting on Cristante’s back.

In ogni caso, both goals were disallowed. Napoli held on to beat Milan 1-0. Their hope is that this win can be a turning point, putting their title challenge back on track. They face struggling Spezia on Wednesday before heading into a winter break when they will hope to recover more players. The return of André-Frank Zambo Anguissa after five games out had already provided a huge lift here, Milan’s attacks breaking repeatedly at the feet of the Cameroonian midfielder.

Victory pulled them level with Milan, who have one last chance, at Empoli, to end the year on a brighter note. This team’s defensive frailties have often been to the fore in recent weeks but this was a night to remind us of how badly they miss the spark provided by Rafael Leão, whose electric runs were so often a catalyst in the early part of this season.

As impressive as Ibrahimovic’s strike rate is, games like this one and the recent defeat by Liverpool show the limitations in what he can offer at 40 Anni. His technique and finishing ability are as sharp as ever but as the Napoli manager, Luciano Spalletti, suggested, those qualities can be neutralised by a high defensive line.

It is harder to operate such a tactic when you have a player with Leão’s pace around – as Liverpool discovered during a thrilling first encounter with Milan at Anfield. Opponents earlier in this season were caught between overlooking that threat, and getting punished, or allowing themselves to get pushed back into deeper positions, which in turn allowed Stefano Pioli’s team to occupy more of the pitch.

The Portuguese forward is expected back in January, though Milan and Napoli have fresh challenges waiting on the horizon with players from both teams expected to be called up for the Africa Cup of Nations.

Per adesso, they sit joint-second. The curtain has not yet come down on either team’s title ambitions, but this was not a night to convince anyone that they can keep up with an Inter side who were crowned as winter champions on Sunday, and who end the year singing from the song-sheet of their new manager, Simone Inzaghi, in ever-more-confident voice.

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