Sunday night brought the hottest showdown of Week 32. Milan, four points above Napoli, were anxious for the chance to take all three points and thus secure Serie A's only remaining automatic Champions League position (oh, come on, we all know Juventus have the first). For their part, the partenopei seemed quite content with a draw at the San Siro, realizing their title hopes had ended and clinging to second was much more imortant.
For the first 30 minutes, it looked as though Milan's hunger would see them win the day. Napoli were content to play the match their way: sit back and hit Milan on the counter. The first decent rossoneri chance came in the fifth minute, when Kevin-Prince Boateng got on the end of a ball from Philippe Mexes. Morgan De Sanctis managed to push the ball away, and, incredibly, no Milan player was able to get on the end of the loose ball and slot it home.
Milan continued to take the match to Napoli, making good use of space to get into wide areas. Mathieu Flamini pushed high up the pitch, forcing Marek Hamsik to drop back in an attempt to neutralize his effects. Sully Muntari saw his shot deflected, making it easy for De Sanctis to gather. Giampaolo Pazzini got himself into a good position, but again, De Sanctis was there to smother the shot.
The first time we really saw Edinson Cavani was in the 28th minute, when he took possession in midfield only to find himself surrounded by five red-and-black shirts -- and absolutely no blue ones. Cavani took his only option, shooting from distance, with the shot ending up somewhere in the San Siro stands.
Just after Cavani wasted that opportunity, Milan took advantage and scored the opening goal. Flamini did well to make a great run inside, exchanging passes with Pazzini before teeing up his shot from just outside the box. 30 minutes in and Milan had the lead.
But the home side may have shot themselves in the foot when taking the lead, because all it did is remind Napoli how much they needed to hang on to a point. It took just three minutes for Goran Pandev to equalize. Hamsik put in an absolutely perfect through ball, leaving the Macedonian with little to do save for give it a tap with his left foot.
Just before the break, Cavani tried to create a bit of magic, pouncing on a ball from Paolo Cannavaro and showing excellent control to get it to the tip of his toe. The Matador very nearly looped his shot over Abbiati's head, but the Milan keeper did well to save.
Upon the restart, again, Milan were the side that looked most threatening -- but again, that's the Napoli way. The rossoneri were intent on attack, but shots from Flamini and Riccardo Montolivo offered up nothing De Sanctis was unable to handle. On the other end, Pandev tried for a second, but Abbiati dealt with it easily. He had more difficulty when Hamsik and Cavani linked up, but was able to rescue the ball before Cavani got on the end of it.
As the match reached the 70th minute, Walter Mazzarri decided to make some bizarre changes. Lorenzo Insigne in for Pandev is his traditional move, but swapping Hamsik for Armero made it clear that Napoli were going to be content with a point. But right after the substitution, Flamini received a straight red card for a horrendous challenge on Juan Zuñiga, going in from behind and sweeping his legs out from under him. What, Walter, might have happened had you kept on your best creator?
After Flamini's sending off, Milan seemed to lose all hope of grabbing the win, despite the introduction of Stephan El Shaarawy in the 73rd minute. The Little Pharaoh very nearly punished Napoli in the 81st minute, doing well to keep possession inside the area. But Pazzini sent the resulting shot sky high, messing up Milan's last real opportunity.
And so the table remains the same, but the rossoneri are the ones that will be suffering the most. If Massimiliano Allegri truly kept El Shaarawy on the bench in order to make sure he was available for Juventus, he best be praying that gamble pays off -- and that Napoli can't find anything against Cagliari next week.
AC Milan: Christian Abbiati, Kevin Constant, Philippe Mexes, Cristian Zapate, Ignazio Abate, Sully Muntari, Riccardo Montolivo, Mathieu Flamini, Robinho (Stephan El Shaarawy 73), Giampaolo Pazzini, Kevin-Prince Boateng (M'Baye Niang 37)
Napoli: Morgan De Sanctis, Miguel Britos, Paolo Cannavaro, Hugo Campagnaro, Juan Zuñiga, Marek Hamsik (Pablo Armero 70), Valon Behrami, Blerim Dzemaili, Christian Maggio, Goran Pandev (Lorenzo Insigne 67), Edinson Cavani
Goals: Flamini 29 (M), Pandev 33 (N)
Red Card: Flamini 71