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Italian football may well have undergone a makeover in the past 20 years, but tonight's match-up between the champions and the challengers evokes memories of huge meetings past

By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Editor

Scudetti, European glory, partisan atmospheres and beautiful football. They used to have it all in Naples. But when Napoli became one of Italy’s powerhouses in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they weren’t alone. For fighting with them all the time were the Milan – Il Grande Milan in fact – of Arrigo Sacchi as they set off on their own ruthless march towards their greatest period both at home and abroad.

The competition between the two sides was both fierce and fascinating; controversial and captivating. Titles were won and lost on controversial decisions and questionable motives. For half a decade, they were the biggest rivals possible. And tonight’s clash at the San Paolo is another landmark fixture, as Napoli’s recent rise from the ashes which now sees them competing at the top of the game again has coincided with a rebirth for Massimiliano Allegri’s champions.

Serie A was certainly spoilt in the period during which Milan had the likes of Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard, and Napoli boasted Diego Maradona. Everything was so much easier then. No co-efficients to chase, nobody doubting the Italians’ boasts of having the best football on the planet available to their public.

HEYDAY HEAD-TO-HEADS | The match-ups when Napoli & Milan bossed Serie A
San Paolo
Season & final positions
San Siro
Napoli 2, Milan 1
1986-87 (Napoli 1st, Milan 5th)
Milan 0, Napoli 0
Napoli 2, Milan 3
1987-88 (Milan 1st, Napoli 2nd)
Milan 4, Napoli 1
Napoli 4, Milan 1
1988-89 (Napoli 2nd, Milan 3rd)
Milan 0, Napoli 0
Napoli 3, Milan 0
1989-90 (Napoli 1st, Milan 2nd)
Milan 3, Napoli 0
Napoli 1, Milan 1
1990-91 (Milan 2nd, Napoli 8th)
Milan 4, Napoli 1

And the quality was certainly immense when the two sides came up against each other. Despite their nip-and-tuck battles on the league ladder, both still proved to have the ability to blow the other away. 3-0 and 4-1 victories went this way and that as the slightest drop in form from either side regularly resulted in them feeling the full force of the magnificent opposition.

The quality of the teams were matched by the quality of the football. The clashes lived up to the billing almost without fail. It was one of the great periods for the Italian game, and Napoli and Milan were at the very heart of it.

These days, the league has been knocked from its pedestal by the big money and big attitudes of other leading countries, but it still retains its openness in comparison to some. With Inter’s false start to the season having been compounded by last night’s draw with Roma, there is an open window for the Neapolitans to climb through. This season could well be like none we have seen in the past 20 years. It could be a Napoli-Milan tug of war once more.

21st century battle | Napoli and Milan are Italy's two biggest hopes

The Rossoneri were not the only success story last term as they scratched their seven-year itch, with Napoli remaining in the race for the Scudetto until late April following a sensational season for the likes of Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi.

One year on, and with Inter appearing weaker, Walter Mazzarri’s men will be looking to stay the course this time around. Tonight is the first big test of their credentials, with two defeats to the Rossoneri last term to avenge. It will be in their opening San Paolo fixture that they will learn much about their chances of a title push, while Milan themselves will want to get their league win column ticking after successive but contrasting 2-2 draws in the last nine days.

Whoever loses can still have more than a claim to be a Scudetto hopeful, but for the winners it will be the first big punch landed in the title bout. You start as you mean to go on, and the early blow could be crucial as the peninsula’s two great hopes go head to head once more. The high quality of the 80s may have faded away, but tonight’s fixture is no less worthy of anticipation.

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