Napoli are stuttering but still stand on the brink of Champions League history

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Napoli are a win away from the Champions League semi-finals - but do AC Milan have their number, and is Victor Osimhen ready?

The party should be starting in Naples. With a 14-point lead over Lazio heading into the home straight of Serie A, the Campanian club are in line for their first league title since the days of Diego Maradona, whose name now adorns their stadium. They are in the Champions League quarter-finals against AC Milan, a team who are 22 points adrift of them in the table. But there are some clouds over the city, and they have cause for concern ahead of a huge match, one which could keep them on track for a historic double, or inflame tensions between ultras and owners.

Just 16 days ago, AC Milan visited Naples and returned to Lombardy with three points and a stunning 4-0 win in their back pockets. Brahim Diaz and Alexis Saelemaekers added to Rafael Leão’s brace as Milan outplayed the champions elect in their own back yard and inflicted the worst result of the season on a side who have otherwise dominated the division. Napoli had the better of possession and more attempts on goal, but the visitors created far better chances and exposed unexpected failings in defence and midfield.

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Then, in the first leg, Milan repeated the trick, running out 1-0 winners at the San Siro. At least on this occasion Napoli did not have to contend with dissent among their own fans, sections of whom stood in silent protest having announced a ‘strike’ for the match in Naples, angry at a variety of concerns ranging from security arrangements at the stadium to rising ticket prices for Champions League games.

Victor Osimhen celebrates with his team-mates after defeating Torino in MarchVictor Osimhen celebrates with his team-mates after defeating Torino in March
Victor Osimhen celebrates with his team-mates after defeating Torino in March | AFP via Getty Images

Manager Luciano Spalletti and owner Aurelio De Laurentiis seem to have patched things over for now, the latter posing for photos with ultra groups and the former berating the fans, telling them that if they acted out again “I will quit this bench and I will leave.”

But while clouds gather gradually off the field, recent results have cast a pall over affairs on the pitch as well. The 4-0 drubbing at Milan’s hands came not long after a 1-0 home defeat to Lazio and preceded a scrappy 2-1 win against Lecce. Their most recent result was a 0-0 draw at home to relegation-threatened Hellas Verona. All is suddenly not so well.

The games against Milan, Lecce and Verona all had a common problem – the absence of star striker Victor Osimhen. The Nigerian has 21 league goals this season, half as many again as the nearest competition in the goalscoring charts, and has become integral to the Neapolitan offence – but then he lost his ‘lucky’ mask on international duty, and was immediately injured. He was fit enough to feature from the bench at the weekend – and to clatter a shot off the underside of the crossbar – but is unlikely to be at peak performance ahead of a key game.

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Spalletti said ahead of the first leg against Milan that Napoli had “won important matches without Osimhen”. There is some truth in that - they beat Rangers and Ajax in the Champions League when he missed a spell of matches earlier in the season, and beat AC Milan 2-1 in the San Siro. But since Osimhen’s latest knock, Napoli have looked half as threatening, if that, and if he is unfit and off the boil then they have a significant issue.

They will also have to do without midfield lynchpin and former Fulham man André-Frank Zambo Anguissa after his first-leg red card, another blow for a side that are racked with unexpected doubt after recent games. An even bigger problem will be working out how to stop Portuguese forward Leão, whose movement and dribbling allowed him far more access to Napoli’s penalty area in the league defeat than Spalletti could possibly be comfortable with. Leão has 11 goals and seven assists in 32 games this season – not exactly Osimhen numbers, but more than enough to exacerbate any fearful shudders in the Napoli dressing room.

On the other hand, Milan are not in the best nick themselves. Those two victories over Napoli were their only two in the last seven games, with unexpected defeats to Fiorentina and Udinese mixed in with disappointing draws against Salernitana, Empoli and Bologna, all less starry sides than that fielded by Milan, who may be the reigning Serie A champions but find themselves locked in a multi-directional battle just to make the top four this term. But even if they have been some way from their best in recent weeks, there is a gnawing feeling that manager Stefano Pioli has Napoli’s number, and that this is a match-up which favours the Milanese.

Still, the gap is only one goal. With Osimhen almost certain to be restored to the first eleven and Georgian prodigy Khvicha Kvaratskhelia also a presumed starter having been rested for the draw with Verona, Napoli have their attacking trident back at full strength – and Osimhen wasn’t present for either of the defeats to Milan this month. Napoli haven’t failed to score for two games in a row all season. There is plenty of cause for optimism.

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But Napoli will need their Nigerian talisman fighting fit, and they will need their fans behind them – no protests are expected on Tuesday evening, but Spalletti knows that if the home crowd turn on their team then it will make a tough task all the harder, and Napoli fans are never far from frustration. The manager has tried to gee them up by evoking the name of Naples’ favourite adopted son – “Our players deserve the support for everything they have done… We will make history, we will be marked onto the walls of this city, we will all become Maradona.”

Napoli have never won the Champions League - but if they can overcome Milan, then they will have taken a significant step towards an achievement that will see Osimhen’s masked face painted in murals across the city, alongside the great Maradona. Lose, and it may be a very long time before the opportunity presents itself again.

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