Serie A Week 23 - 8 Feb 2014 (19.45 UK)
Napoli 3 - 1 Milan
Taarabt 7 (M), Inler 11 (N), Higuain 56, 82 (N)
Stadio San Paolo

Adel Taarabt scored on his Milan debut, but a Gonzalo Higuain brace saw Napoli win 3-1 and Mario Balotelli burst into tears.

The Partenopei badly needed a boost after back-to-back defeats in Serie A and the Coppa Italia, but missed Anthony Reveillere, Juan Camilo Zuniga and Giandomenico Mesto. Milan were still unbeaten in the League with Clarence Seedorf as Coach, but he made huge changes for this trip. Kaka and Keisuke Honda had gastroenteritis, Daniele Bonera suspended, Stephan El Shaarawy, Cristian Zapata, Valter Birsa and Bryan Cristante injured. New buys Michael Essien and Adel Taarabt made their Serie A debuts with Ignazio Abate moved to the right side of an attacking trident. Balotelli returned from his ban.

Milan had managed only three draws from their last five encounters with Napoli, but hadn’t lost both Serie A games in a single season since 1985-86. Gonzalo Higuain tested Cristian Abbiati after just 40 seconds. Adil Rami then ran a risk with a slight shirt tug on Higuain in the box.

It was all Napoli in the early stages, but Milan took a surprise lead with Taarabt on his Serie A debut. He surged through the middle on the counter-attack and curled a wonderful right-foot finish into the far bottom corner of the net.

The hosts fought back and Abbiati smothered Marek Hamsik’s shot, then captain Philippe Mexes needed a decisive sliding intervention to stop Higuain going clear on goal.

It was a frantic start to the game and Napoli equalised when Gokhan Inler’s long-range strike took a deflection off Nigel De Jong to loop over Abbiati. The Swiss midfielder celebrated by showing the Number 7 jersey worn by Carmelo Imbriani, the ex-Napoli player who died a year ago.

Higuain’s swerving shot whistled just past the far stick with Abbiati immobile, then Pepe Reina had his gloves stung by a Balotelli pile-driver and Dries Mertens fired at the goalkeeper.

There was controversy on 22 minutes when Mertens sprung the offside trap and Abbiati rushed out of the box to clatter into him. By that point the Belgian had already lobbed wide, but the referee awarded a free kick with a yellow card for the goalkeeper, not considering it a clear soring opportunity. From that free kick, Mertens tested Abbiati again.

Higuain had the ball in the net after being flagged marginally offside, while Abbiati got a hand to Hamsik’s strike. Jorginho chipped up a pass for Hamsik, whose stunning volley was inches away from the near top corner.

Napoli had a triple opportunity just before half-time. First Abbiati parried Lorenzo Insigne’s attempt from point-blank range, then Cristian Maggio hit the follow-up against the base of the near upright and as the move continued Insigne’s header was inches wide of the far post.

Kaka had been ill for several days with gastroenteritis, but replaced Robinho for the second half, while Urby Emanuelson went into a forward role with Abate returning to full-back.

Federico Fernandez’s glancing header from a corner was just about controlled by Abbiati, then an Insigne curler was inches wide of the far top corner. Taarabt was booked for dissent.

Napoli turned the game around completely, as Higuain sprung the offside trap from an inspired Inler ball over the top and got away from Mexes for a looping header past Abbiati.

Higuain’s chest and volley was not far off target and Reina had to beat away a viciously dipping Essien strike. It was almost 3-1, as Higuain again got between centre-backs on a Jorginho chipped pass, but this time scuffed the volley.

Taarabt nearly completed his brace, dribbling between defenders to unleash a strike that Reina spilled just past the waiting Balotelli. Moments later Reina rushed off his line to challenge Balotelli and completely missed the ball, but SuperMario wasn’t expecting it and went wide with an open goal in front of him. He was substituted soon after and was caught on camera crying on the bench, attempting to hide his face behind a coat.

Reina just about palmed an Abate cross off the feet of substitute Giampaolo Pazzini, then made himself big to close off Pazzini when he sprung the offside trap.

Napoli extended their lead with a well-worked move. Hamsik threaded through for Insigne down the right, who rolled across for Higuain to blast in from nine yards.

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Napoli: Reina; Maggio, Fernandez, Albiol, Ghoulam; Inler (Dzemaili 88), Jorginho; Mertens, Hamsik (Behrami 83), Insigne (Callejon 78); Higuain
Milan: Abbiati; De Sciglio, Mexes, Rami, Emanuelson (Montolivo 69); De Jong, Essien; Abate, Taarabt, Robinho (Kaka 46); Balotelli (Pazzini 73)
Ref: Massa