Derby danger for champion AC Milan as Napoli 'runs away with it'

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AC Milan's crisis threatens to deepen as last year's Italian champion heads into Sunday's game against bitter city rival Inter, miles off the Serie A title pace and in a battle to reach next year's Champions League.

A full 15 points behind runaway league leaders Napoli and outside Italy's top four, Milan is possibly at its lowest point in coach Stefano Pioli's time in charge since a 5-0 loss at Atalanta in 2019 almost led to Ralf Rangnick replacing him as coach.

Pioli's team won just one of its seven matches in January in all competitions, extending what was a five-point gap between it and Napoli to the current chasm. Milan also was knocked out of the Italian Cup by Torino and defeated by Inter in the Italian Super Cup. That loss to Inter in Saudi Arabia was the first of three humiliating defeats in as many matches, followed up by a 4-0 blowout loss at Lazio and last weekend's stunning 5-2 home defeat at the hands of lowly Sassuolo.

A soldout San Siro awaits both teams as Inter hosts the third and probably final derby of the season, having supplanted Milan as Napoli's closest rivals for the title (Scudetto).

Despite Milan's collapse, Inter is only two points ahead of its local rivals and at the head of a pack of five teams separated by three points in what looks to be an exciting race — barring an epic Napoli collapse — for the three remaining Champions League slots. Roma, Lazio and above all in-form Atalanta, which is at Sassuolo on Saturday night, will want to take advantage of the two Milanese giants playing each other.

Napoli travels to struggling Spezia for Sunday's early match with a gale-force wind in its sails and the feeling that nothing can stop the team from claiming a first league crown since 1990. In the aftermath of last week's dramatic win over Roma, Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis was blocked at the exit of the Stadio Maradona by hundreds of delirious fans who danced around his car while roaring along to a trashy dance version of the chant 'il capolista se ne va,' which can be roughly translated as 'we're running away with it.'

Spirit is so high down south, that De Laurentiis happily messed around with a fan in a phone call which quickly went viral on social media, during which he joked that pizza in Naples "was disgusting" and made an obscene suggestion on what the club's fans could do if Napoli does not win the Champions League.

His insult to the symbol of Neapolitan cuisine was so great that De Laurentiis then had to clarify in a statement that he was joking "apart from one thing: what I said about the Champions League." It's a scarcely believable turnaround in relations between owner and supporters since preseason, when enraged fans were demanding he sell, following the departure of beloved stars Lorenzo Insigne, Kalidou Koulibaly and Napoli's all-time top scorer Dries Mertens.

Player to watch: Rafael Leao

Dropped for last weekend's humbling by Sassuolo, Portugal winger Leao will be key to Milan's chances against Inter as it struggles with form and injuries, the latest a thigh problem for Algerian midfielder Ismael Bennacer. In recent weeks, Leao has been a shadow of the player that lit up Serie A before the World Cup, but another display like the one which won this season's first derby, back in September, would go a long way to stopping the Rossoneri's rot.

Saturday: Cremonese vs Lecce, Roma vs Empoli, Sassuolo vs Atalanta
Sunday: Spezia vs Napoli, Torino vs Udinese, Fiorentina vs Bologna, Inter Milan vs AC Milan
Monday: Verona vs Lazio, Monza vs Sampdoria
Tuesday: Salernitana vs Juventus
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© Agence France-Presse

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