Contrasting fortunes is something of an understatement when categorising the meeting of Napoli and Inter at the Stadio San Paolo on Sunday evening. A comprehensive 2-0 defeat at surprise-package Cagliari saw Roberto Donadoni’s side plummet further from the fringes of European football and closer to the yawning abyss of mid table obscurity. While the Nerazzurri narrowly missed out on a chance to all but capture a fourth successive Scudetto after a hard-fought and vitriolic draw with Juventus.
When the sides meet on Sunday evening, the Partenopei will be looking to catapult themselves away from the likes of Siena and Chievo, who are both nipping viciously at their heels, and closer to the sanctity of the middle of the table. As tough a prospect as facing the league leaders may sound, especially after taking a lowly four points in their last five outings since the arrival Donadoni – Napoli have stepped up to the plate against the Milan giants before.
Last season, when the two clubs came face-to-face in March, a solitary goal from Uruguayan Marcelo Zalayeta gave the Partenopei a deserved win against Roberto Mancini’s charges. The win that night for the Azzurri was the first defeat suffered by the Nerazzurri that campaign and was credited for revitalising what had looked a dead and buried title race. Claudio Ranieri will be hoping the Sky Blues can make lightning strike twice and give Jose Mourinho’s men a fright in blowing the title race wide open.
Inter will be kicking themselves that they couldn’t outlast the ten-men of the Bianconeri that little bit longer on Saturday evening. In a game now somewhat overshadowed by the poisonous, racial barracking of Mario Balotelli, the Nerazzurri looked to have asserted their authority on the title race and put themselves beyond reach. They will instead be left scratching their heads at how Zdenek Grygera and Giorgio Chiellini were left unmarked in the fifth minute of stoppage time, to keep Ranieri’s slim title dream still burning.
With Milan’s sudden jump into second spot there is little time to dwell on missed opportunities for Mourinho, and despite a (seemingly) midweek formality of the Coppa Italia against Sampdoria, his focus is set firmly on cutting off the clinging fingers of Carlo Ancelotti and Ranieri’s charges. The Nerazzurri will be hoping to add a bit more breathing space between them and the chasing pack, and although a ten-point lead with only a maximum eighteen points remaining, it still provides the slimmest threat of a shock collapse.
Mourinho has no fresh injury concerns to take to the once imposing fortress of the San Paolo. Mancini, Maicon, Luis Jimenez and Nelson Rivas are still unavailable for selection by the Special One, and there are currently no players with suspensions to uphold. Despite the luxury of being able to select the same side, Mourinho may opt to make some self-imposed changes to his starting XI. Possibly in light of the terrible abuse suffered at the hands of Juve’s supposed fans, Azzurrini striking sensation Balotelli – the goal-scorer against Juventus, may find himself on the bench with Julio Cruz lining up alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic. In addition to Cruz replacing Balotelli in the frontline, defensive prodigy Davide Santon may be welcomed back into the fold at the expense of ageing Portuguese winger Luis Figo. The return of Santon is likely to see veteran Javier Zanetti, who offered a wealth of experience on the right of defence in Turin last weekend, switch to take up a position on the right of the midfield line alongside the tried and tested trio of Sulley Muntari, Esteban Cambiasso and Dejan Stankovic.
The home side have a more pressing concern in their selection. Talismanic skipper Paolo Cannavaro is set to sit out the game due to suspension with Salvatore Aronica likely to slot in between Matteo Contini and Fabio Santocroce in the heart of the Partenopei defensive three. Elsewhere, Donadoni looks set to keep faith with the side that succumbed to goals at either end of the ninety minutes in the Sant’Elia against Cagliari. As last season’s hero Zalayeta squandered a chance with ten minutes to play which would have earned Napoli a fifth successive draw, the Partenopei continue to struggle on the goal-scoring front and need some sort of revitalisation among the ranks if they are to ensure that the remaining six games does not become a dog-fight to retain the top flight football of which they have become accustomed.
The month of May holds five teams currently sitting beneath Napoli in the table and any sort of momentum that can be gained from the clash with Inter could turn into an exceptionally profitable run-in, which includes trips to Siena, Lecce and Catania and visits of Chievo and Torino. Fifteen points very much on offer for Donadoni and the Sky Blues’ tifosi will be hopeful of some of the resolve the Azzurri mustered in the goalless draw with Milan and maybe even go one better and nick a priceless win come Sunday.
Similarly, the Nerazzurri has one of the easier run-ins and, a tricky trip to the Sant’Elia aside, the blue-and-black half of Milan could get within touching distance of securing their fourth Scudetto on the trot and Mourinho’s first with a win at the Stadio San Paolo. Either way, the showdown on Sunday evening could have very interesting permutations at both ends of the Serie A table.