STADIO SAN SIRO (Milan): Luciano Spalletti must be wondering when he will catch a break. After a season where everything has gone impossibly smoothly for Napoli, the problems now won’t stop mounting up.
Losing top scorer Victor Osimhen for Wednesday’s Champions League quarter-final first leg against AC Milan was already a big enough blow. But his absence coming while Giovanni Simeone was injured and with Giacomo Raspadori lacking fitness felt cruel.
All of a sudden, Spalletti had to get experimental. It’s not something he’s needed to do much this season, given his team started the campaign in such hot form that it’s been a case of ‘plug in and play’ ever since.
Eljif Elmas was thrown in as a false nine for the first time this season for Napoli’s first-ever Champions League quarter-final.
You could argue there’s no better man for the job than this versatile, Swiss army knife footballer. Elmas has played in central midfield, on both wings and as a no.10 this season, but leading the line and filling the shoes of 25-goal Osimhen was a daunting task and one he unsurprisingly struggled to fill.
It wouldn’t be fair to apportion blame to the North Macedonia international for Napoli’s inability to turn their early dominance into goals or convert the chances that arrived – if anyone is to blame, it’s Mike Maignan.
There is better news for the second leg, with reports on Thursday morning saying Osimhen is certain to be fit in time, while by then Raspadori should be in better shape too.
But just as Spalletti finds one missing piece of the jigsaw behind the sofa, he has lost another two.
Napoli’s attack will be stronger next week at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, but they will be without two large chunks of the spinal cord of this team with Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Kim Min-jae suspended.
Not only would the pair have been nailed on to start, but they provide a level of physicality that will be difficult to replace. Kim has been Napoli’s best defender this season and there is a strong case to be made for Anguissa being their standout midfielder – even with stiff competition.
It provides Spalletti with yet another headache, and that’s before we even get to a backdrop of off-field protests that spilled over into fans fighting amongst themselves during the shock 4-0 defeat to Milan earlier this month.
Spalletti threatened to “leave the bench and go home” if protests against the ownership continue in the second leg next week. The last thing he needs right now is the distraction of infighting as he tries to plot a route to the semi-finals.
Milan’s mental advantage
AC Milan fans might feel that they should have come away from the first leg with a healthier advantage.
After all – would they ever get a better chance? Facing an under-powered Napoli side that finished with ten men in front of a febrile San Siro crowd put the ball firmly in the Rossoneri court.
Either way, taking any sort of lead south next week is an achievement worth applauding. It means that when the Milan players board the plane to Naples, they will be travelling not only with a lead to protect, but a sense of confidence.
If there ever was a fear factor, it’s now gone. Two wins in the space of 10 days with an aggregate score of 5-0 against a Napoli side that has dominated at home and abroad this year is a remarkable return.
It’s all the more so when you consider the dreadful form Stefano Pioli’s side were in just a couple of months ago, but that slump appears to be behind them now.
Rafael Leao is looking like Rafael Leao again, Brahim Diaz is hitting form and – perhaps most crucially – the defensive shape has been fixed.
Rossoneri supporters won’t need reminded of the spell in January when they conceded 12 goals in three games to Inter, Lazio and Sassuolo, but they now have eight clean sheets in their last 11 games and three in a row ahead of Saturday’s trip to Bologna.
As Osimhen prepares to pull his mask back on next week in Campania, it will be that backline that could make or break Milan’s European campaign.