A few months ago, no Serie A fan would’ve believed you if you told them that when Napoli next face AC Milan, it’ll be a meeting between two of Italy’s hottest teams.
Both sides have had difficult campaigns, struggling for form and identity, sacking coaches, and requiring patience with the new men in charge.
But since football restarted, the clubs have been two of Serie A’s great success stories.
Gennaro Gattuso lead Napoli to Coppa Italia glory before overseeing a run of Serie A form in which they’ve picked up 13 points from a possible 18, falling to defeat only against a seemingly unstoppable Atalanta side.
Milan have done even better, going unbeaten in Serie A and taking 14 points from the same number of games – a total only bettered by Gian Piero Gasperini’s all-conquering La Dea side with 16 points.
It was no real surprise then, that they shared the spoils in an entertaining 2-2 draw at the Stadio San Paolo on Sunday night, even if Napoli might feel hard done by given their overall superiority and a controversial penalty decision.
But the fact the Rossoneri managed to take a point from the game, having surrendered an early lead to go behind, wasn’t just thanks to a refereeing decision.
It was also the result of a newfound ability to stay in big games and take points from them.
“Now we know how to stay in games, and a strong team absolutely must do that: we’re managing to against the big teams, who before were our handicap,” Stefano Pioli said after the game.
This attribute was on display in spectacular fashion last week when they launched a second half comeback from 2-0 behind against Juventus to win 4-2.
But turning up in the big games has been a hallmark of Pioli’s side since they returned to action.
Their 14-point haul becomes all the more impressive when you consider that they’ve taken 10 of those points from games against Roma, Lazio, Juve and Napoli – four of the six sides sitting above them in the table.
Bizarrely, the only time they dropped points before Sunday’s clash in Naples was against rock-bottom SPAL.
The recent fixture schedule could’ve easily become a nightmare for the Diavoli and piled more pressure on what not long ago looked set to be a forgettable campaign.
But now, with their calendar easing up somewhat and only a four-point gap separating them from Roma, Milan can reasonably aim to match last term’s fifth-placed Serie A finish.
This big-game swagger has come completely out of the blue.
Before football was interrupted, Milan had lost to Inter (twice), Roma, Lazio (their first home Serie A defeat to the Romans in 30 years), Juventus, Atalanta (5-0), and drawn 1-1 with Napoli. That gave them one point from a possible 21 in their big matches.
It’s a remarkable turnaround, and points to the growing confidence in this young team. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s influence has often been pointed to as a key component to their improvement, and it is true that only one of those big-game defeats came on his watch; the 4-2 Derby della Madonnina collapse, in which the Swede scored to put his side 2-0 up before their second half meltdown.
Although Ibra would love to take personal credit for this improvement, it goes deeper. They are playing with more confidence, using players in roles they’re comfortable in, and recent signings like Ante Rebic and Ismael Bennacer are now finding their feet in impressive style.
After all, Ibrahimovic’s influence against Napoli on Sunday was minimal and if anything, his hissy fit at being substituted following the Vesuviani’s second goal was disruptive.
There are several green shoots for Milanisti to feel good about at the moment, but their big game mentality deserves to be up there as one of the most significant.