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Saturday February 26 2011
Back to the future

Exactly three decades ago Milan and Napoli were fighting it out for the title. Dave Taylor looks at the similarities today leading up to Monday's big game

At the end of Week 26 on February 26, 1990, Milan topped the table two points ahead of Napoli, while Inter were third, three points behind them. Before this season's Week 27 there are the exact same number of points between these sides, with Napoli still the filling in a San Siro sandwich. Then as now, Inter were the champions, yet while they never got any further, Milan and Napoli kept up the skirmish until the final day.

Napoli had been top or near the top until Week 24 when legends Daniele Massaro, Marco van Basten and Paolo Maldini scored at the Giuseppe Meazza to beat them 3-0. Milan consequently took over as leaders until Week 31, when Napoli were awarded two points (‘A tavolino', due to a coin throwing incident at Atalanta), which put them level with Milan, on 45, who drew 0-0 at Bologna (wins were then worth two points).

Going into the penultimate game they were still level on 47 points, but where Napoli crushed Bologna 4-2 away, Milan lost 2-1 at Verona. Starting the final round of 34, with Napoli two points ahead, the Rossoneri hammered Bari 4-0, ironically in Bergamo, while the Azzurri only scraped a 1-0 win over Lazio. It was defender Marco Baroni's second ever goal, (Napoli's 3000th) but it was enough to send a whole city delirious for the second time in three years.

Now I am not saying that this is how it is going to turn out this season, but it is certainly shaping up to be as exciting and as close as then. For the fans of both teams this is a crunch clash, a title decider and one of the most important domestic matches between the two teams for probably 30 years.

It is a game that will have a crucial bearing on where the title will end up. A fixture that has gathered such momentum and energy, that at the end of the night Napoli can either achieve heights unseen since Diego Maradona's days, or Milan can almost set themselves in concrete as leaders for the rest of the season.

Yet many critics and certain fans still believe the ‘southern upstarts' have no business getting in the way of the Super San Siro sides, yet doubtless there are just as many wanting to see a fresh team contending for the title.

With just 12 games left and the Rossoneri still topping the table and Inter a few points behind them, it seems history could repeat itself. Could Napoli actually end the season above the deadly duo? Could we see a return to those glorious days when a winning goal would see the San Paolo shake as if Vesuvius itself had erupted?

Like those days, Napoli have a South American who is the league's current top soccer, Edinson Cavani, who has now struck 20 goals and could end up as capocannoniere. The only other modern Napoli player to do that of course was Maradona.

Yet it's not just El Matador. Helping him score the goals are Marek Hamsik, whose eight strikes have been integral, and the all-action Argentinian Ezequiel Lavezzi, whose ten assists and five goals highlight his creativity and importance to the team.

Despite the back-line seen by some as “vulnerable,' Napoli have the second best defence in Serie A. Coach Walter Mazzarri has always preferred a three man defence with a 4-2-1 formation in front of them that fits the team's strengths like a glove. And while others feel it would take a miracle of San Gennaro proportions to win the title, so far so good for the Azzurri. Beating Roma away was a real test passed.

As we were reminded recently, Napoli patron Aurelio De Laurentiis said the Azzurri have the right to dream but cannot afford to live off dreams and this Monday's game will help critics see if the dream turns into fantasy or reality.

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