Going into Saturday night's showdown at the San Siro, it was a case of two legendary Italian clubs trying to find their place in the current campaign. Milan brought in Stefano Pioli to get more out of the players at his disposal after previous boss Marco Giampaolo failed to build chemistry in the dressing room. On the opposite bench, Carlo Ancelotti – a Rossoneri great on and off the field – was looking to stop the slide of a team in crisis.
Following a creditable performance away at Juventus, fans of the seven-time European champions had held a ray of hope that there were signs of the season getting better. Performances had clearly improved, as did their odds on almost every sportsbook, but now it was time for the results to match that in order for the team to start their ascent up the standings.
The team were unfortunately missing three key components from the clash at Allianz Stadium as Suso pulled out during the warmup, while Hakan Calhanoglu and the ever-improving Ismael Bennacer were serving one-match bans for yellow-card accumulations. Regardless, a club of Milan's stature and ambitions can’t be using absences as an excuse.
Almost 60,000 fans at San Siro would have been encouraged enough by the superb start from their side. They played high up the pitch, did not let the Partenopei play in their now-customary way and moved the ball around with purpose.
The replacements for Suso and Hakan - Ante Rebic and the fit-again Giacomo Bonaventura - filled in admirably at the start. The Croatia winger whipped in a cross from the right, which gave the Napoli goalkeeper Alex Meret a chance to stretch his fingertips to clear away the ball. Unfortunately, the performance of the summer recruit peaked at that point and he ended up looking like a deer in headlights, as he fell off considerably.
One player who has definitely stalled in recent times is striker Krzysztof Piatek. The Pole started his career in Italian football as well any player has in recent memory as he racked up 22 goals in 37 matches, between spells with Genoa and Milan. However, due to a combination of poor service, lack of confidence and the team not living up to their own lofty standards, he has only managed three goals so far this campaign, two of which were penalties.
The 23-year old missed a header early on, in a not-too-dissimilar chance he had against Juve. As the saying goes, when it rains, it pours, and the home side were made to pay for that missed opportunity as Napoli took the lead soon after. A Lorenzo Insigne screamer cannoned off the crossbar, but the Milan defence were caught napping and Hirving Lozano was there to score with a downward header past Gigio Donnarumma. The goalkeeper was left woefully exposed by his backline.
One aspect of the team that has seen some improvement under the leadership of Pioli is mentality, and that was evident soon after they conceded the opening goal. Just five minutes later, Milan managed an equaliser and what a goal it was! Someone who has been sorely missed in the team is midfielder Bonaventura, who tied the game with a scorcher from just outside the penalty area after he was set up by another player who has started to come into his own - Rade Krunic.
Given his willingness to leave everything on the field, his humbleness to play anywhere in the middle or up front and his ability to create and score, his return is a welcome one for the Rossoneri. As former director Adriano Galliani would say, Jack is like a new signing.
As the match progressed, the identity of Pioli's side became clearer and clearer. In attack, they lined up with a 4-2-3-1 formation, giving both width up front and the defensive security of a double pivot. Unfortunately, one half of the pivot - Lucas Biglia - has been a shadow of himself, confounding critics as to why the coach continues to have faith in him. Granted, Bennacer was missing and Franck Kessie has been out of form, but Biglia’s best days are way behind him and he doesn’t even warrant a place in the squad, let alone the starting XI.
One player whose form has not dropped off, however, is Donnarumma and the Italy No 1 made a telling stop on international teammate Insigne, when the forward was away in the clear. Yet again, Milan's last man was left exposed but Gigio was up to the task.
In the second half, as has all too often been the case with the Diavolo, their performance levels dropped off significantly. The pressing disappeared, the quick passing was no longer existent and lack of chemistry between the lines was woeful. It meant that the team were under pressure more and more as Napoli got more of a foothold in the game.
Fortunately for the hosts, they avoided conceding another goal. The often-maligned Mateo Musacchio made a miraculous, last-ditch tackle on Lozano, which prevented a certain goal that the onlooking Paolo Maldini would have been proud of. Maybe the former captain has had an influence on the field, even if he still has work to do off it...
There was still time for Biglia to give the Rossoneri faithful a fright as he gave the ball away to Elmas, but the Macedonian foolishly chose to dive when Donnarumma came out of his blocks instead of having a go at goal.
It came as no surprise when Rebic, Biglia and Piatek were the three players substituted by Pioli, all of them receiving different degrees of jeering from the frustrated San Siro crowd. In his defence, Rebic had suffered an injury in the first half. But what were the excuses for the other two?
The changes did not have much of an impact on Milan’s overall performance, although the use of Calabria in the middle of the park was an intriguing tactic from the ex-Fiorentina and Lazio boss. Remember Pep Guardiola doing something similar with Phillip Lahm during his time at Bayern?
The clash of the former title holders petered out thereafter as the lack of motivation from Napoli and the inability of Milan to maintain performance levels for the entire 90 minutes were evident.
While he has had an impact and has improved the team, particularly in terms of their overall displays, Pioli must find a way to get his players to last for the entire match. Given the club's financial situation, the history behind it and the expectations of the fans, a Champions League place is a minimum requirement for Milan. It's time for performances and results to go hand in hand.