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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 challengers evokes memories of huge meetings gone by

Scudetti, European glory, partisan atmospheres and beautiful soccer. They used to have it all in Naples. But when Napoli became one of Italy’s powerhouses in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it wasn't alone. Fighting with it all the time was the Milan – Il Grande Milan in fact – of Arrigo Sacchi as it set off on their own ruthless march towards its 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 spoiled in the period during which Milan had the likes of Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard, and Napoli boasted Diego Maradona. Everything was so much easier then. No coefficients to chase, nobody doubting the Italians’ boasts of having the best soccer on the planet available to their public.

HEYDAY HEAD-TO-HEADS | The match-ups when Napoli and Milan bossed Serie A
San Paolo
Season and 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

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 it feeling the full force of the magnificent opposition.

The quality of the teams was matched by the quality of the soccer. 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 the opening San Paolo fixture that Napoli will learn much about their chances of a title push, while Milan itself will want to get its 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 winner 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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