Sunday’s game between Milan and Napoli managed to tell us both.
As a guide to how these two teams will approach their Champions League encounters with Arsenal and Chelsea, it was next to useless.
At the same time it revealed some of the weaknesses in two side whose form has dipped recently. Arsenal especially should be encouraged.
Milan’s injury crisis has affected veterans and youngsters alike and they currently lack the fluency and aggression they were displaying earlier on. Rino Gattuso and Antonio Cassano are the long-term absentees — the future of both players is in some doubt — but as fast as they’ve brought in reinforcements such as Alexander Merkel, they too have succumbed to injury.
On Sunday, Milan reverted to the diamond formation from their preferred attacking midfield trio. It didn’t work. “So many static players it was like Subbuteo,” commented the Gazzetta dello Sport about their first-half showing. They improved after a half-time shouting session from Massimo Allegri and still more when they had their backs to the wall after Zlatan Ibrahimovic was sent off with 25 minutes left, but the coach is obviously scratching his head for solutions.
The veterans are showing their age. When a struggling Clarence Seedorf was replaced for the last 15 minutes by Massimo Ambrosini, it stiffened Milan’s resistance — but those two stalwarts have a combined age of almost 71.
Allegri’s other worry is that the youngsters aren’t performing. He had Ignazio Abate and Urby Emanuelson — combined age 46 — together on the right in this game and they could barely hold on to the ball at times, let alone use it.
Napoli, though, were uncharacteristically cautious, only really attacking when Milan were down to 10 men. A point away from home against the champions is usually a good result, and their coach Walter Mazzari tried to make the most of it, but their form has deteriorated since Christmas. Their last league win was against Palermo on Jan 8, since when they’ve taken four points from five games.
Unlike Milan they’ve been largely injury-free but their attacking players just haven’t been firing. Edinson Cavani, coveted by several top clubs, couldn’t get a shot on target and missed an easy header just after Ibrahimovic was sent packing. Perhaps fortunately for him, Robinho missed an even easier chance at the end.
Milan’s defensive heroics in the last quarter will no doubt give them heart, but this was another failure in a match against title rivals, after earlier losses against Juventus, Napoli and Inter and their defeat at Lazio last week.
Milan may only be one point behind Juventus at the top, but that reflects the inconsistent form of the other leading sides. Inter, for example, seemed to be recovering some of their form when they won the derby, only to come a cropper at Lecce and then go down 4-0 to Roma on Sunday.
The concern for Arsenal could be Ibrahimovic, perennial title-winner but so often a disappointment in European games. Sent off for a stupid slap on Sunday he will be rested and perhaps more motivated for the Champions League.
Napoli’s own title challenge is surely over. They are 14 points behind Juve and have played one game more. Teams such as Genoa and Parma are their mid-table rivals. But that probably makes them more of a threat in the Champions League, which is their priority this season.
Napoli are more of a cup side anyway. That poor league form during January is in contrast to Coppa Italia wins in home ties against Cesena and Inter — they play the away leg of their semi-final against Siena on Thursday. The attack which managed just one shot on target in the San Siro on Sunday is quite capable of blitzing opponents in their own San Paolo stadium, as Manchester City discovered. That game too was preceded by Cavani firing blanks, but as he showed then and as he has showed in the cup recently (three goals in two games) he is a striker who can suddenly hit form.