Now it's official: Rafa's new Napoli are serious Serie A title contenders

The Partenopei's pizzazz of Wednesday made way for authority come Sunday, but wins against Borussia Dortmund and AC Milan show they have it in them to challenge
By Kris Voakes

For the first time since the days of Diego Maradona, Napoli look a serious title challenger once again. A magnificent performance balancing power and panache with belligerence and control saw off AC Milan at San Siro and laid down a marker in their quest for a first Serie A crown in 24 years.

As with their victory over Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League on Wednesday, the Partenopei’s win was set up in the tactical brain of Rafa Benitez. Powerful bursts at the beginning of each half led to both of their goals and could have garnered more, and even though a much-improved Milan caused them trouble for long spells of the game they looked extremely solid for the most part and the three points were richly deserved.

Benitez has earned every bit of praise that is coming his way at the moment for setting about the task of bolstering the Azzurri as a proper unit, but the players’ ability to take on his direction and produce their recent string of performances is every bit as important in the turnaround of Napoli as a tactical outfit.

The last time Roma faced Lazio, the Giallorossi turned in one of the most abysmal derby performances in living memory as they lost the Coppa Italia final. But their 2-0 win over their city rivals on Sunday saw them continue their 100 per cent record in Serie A and top the table alongside Napoli.

It was a very cautious Biancocelesti display in the first half which helped to kill the opening 45 minutes as a spectacle, yet the introduction of Adem Ljajic shortly after the break kicked Roma into life.

Suddenly the game was opened up as the Serb created a new angle of attack which tested Vladimir Petkovic's side, and it came as no surprise when Federico Balzaretti fired home the opener seconds after having hit the bar. The left-back's subsequent tears as he celebrated in front of the Curva Sud showed just what the Rome derby means to the players as well as the fans.

Typically, referee Gianluca Rocchi helped to create some controversy before the afternoon was over, sending off Andre Dias for a fairly innocuous looking shoulder challenge on Francesco Totti, albeit as last man. But Roma were the worthy winners, and Ljajic's injury-time penalty ensured that the final margin would match the balance of play.

Rudi Garcia's men are flying right now. Who expected that after the sales of Pablo Osvaldo, Erik Lamela and Marquinhos?

Whereas under Walter Mazzarri the side always appeared to have a weak underbelly, Benitez’s new shape and flexible approach to the job seems to be getting the very best out of his players. No longer do they look quite so beatable in the air. Question marks down either channel have also been dealt with well to date. Add in their ability to change pace as and when necessary, and the flair options that remain in the likes of Marek Hamsik and Lorenzo Insigne, and Napoli will take some beating this term.

Christian Maggio might not be the best defensive full-back in the world, but he showed what he can offer the side in Wednesday’s win over Dortmund. Come Sunday, it was Giandomenico Mesto’s solidity on the right which ranked high in Napoli’s list of positives. Gokhan Inler was also missing from the midweek marvels, but Blerim Dzemaili helped Valon Behrami to ensure that Milan were very rarely allowed any kind of control in midfield.

More than anything, it was the fast start to the game that had ensured Napoli could dictate the terms. After Hamsik, Behrami and Gonzalo Higuain all missed good chances to put the visitors ahead, Raul Albiol’s cushioned return from Jose Callejon’s free kick was headed in by Miguel Britos. It was perhaps the most overdue sixth-minute goal in football history.

Thereafter, Milan gave their greatest showing of the season so far but couldn’t break Napoli down. Mario Balotelli looked a threat throughout but found Britos and Albiol to be determined opponents. The Rossoneri had long periods of possession, but rare was the time that a Milan player looked up not to find a blue shirt bearing down on him.

Another upping of the pace at the beginning of the second period resulted in a goal for Higuain. He was helped out by Nigel de Jong’s inability to stop him rolling into space, Philippe Mexes’ decision to turn his back on the shot and Christian Abbiati being unable to get more than a soft palm to the ball, but the visitors had worked their gameplan to perfection.

When Balotelli was chopped down by Albiol for a penalty 10 minutes later it seemed the home side would set up a rally over the last half-hour of the game, but Pepe Reina became the first goalkeeper ever to deny the No.45 from 12 yards, getting a strong right hand to the Italy striker’s spot-kick. After 26 consecutive successful attempts, Balotelli’s record had been ended following his decision to change his usual stop-start run-up and Milan’s chances of getting anything out of the game had gone.

The indefatigable front man wasn’t to be denied late on though. Having also seen a magnificent left-foot strike hit Reina’s crossbar he finally beat the rejuvenated keeper with a spectacular curling shot from 20 yards in injury time. Unfortunately for the home fans, it had come too late to get their side back in the game.

But anything other than an away win would have been harsh on a team who suddenly appear a serious threat to Juventus. They have a keeper on top form again, a back four that looks structurally disciplined, a midfield of great ability and strength, a forward department to rival the best in Italy, a substitutes bench which looks deeper and more reliable with every game and a coach who knows how to send out teams to attack, to defend, or to do a bit of both when necessary.

Early though it is, Napoli are looking like the real deal.

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