Surprising Napoli can still challenge AC Milan
With Inter Milan stumbling out of control, Napoli has surprisingly replaced the five-time defending champion as the closest challenger to AC Milan with seven rounds remaining in Serie A.
Milan's 3-0 win over Inter in last week's derby and Napoli's dramatic 4-3 comeback win over Lazio last weekend combined to leave Milan with a three-point lead over Napoli, with Inter now trailing by five points.
"It's a pleasure to see a club like Napoli putting itself in position to win the title. It's good for Italian football," said Italy coach Cesare Prandelli.
Napoli hasn't won Serie A since Diego Maradona led the southern club to the honor in 1987 and 1990. The club fell into financial difficulty and was relegated to the third division in 2004 but new president Aurelio De Laurentiis has made the squad a threat again.
However, Napoli visits mid-table Bologna this weekend without suspended striker Edinson Cavani, who has been the squad's catalyst all season long.
Cavani scored a hat trick last weekend to give him 25 goals this season, tying him with Antonio Di Natale for the league lead and making him the top single-season goalscorer in Napoli history - eclipsing Antonio Vojak's 22 goals in 1933.
Cavani's three hat tricks this season also tie him for the single-season Serie A record with Marco van Basten (with Milan in 1992) and Giuseppe Signori (with Lazio in 1994).
"I wouldn't sell him for even 100 million euros," De Laurentiis said.
Even without Cavani, Napoli still has a potentially explosive attack with Ezequiel Lavezzi, Marek Hamsik and Giuseppe Mascara.
As De Laurentiis notes, the team has taken on the working-class attitude of manager Walter Mazzarri.
"Mazzarri is the real Maradona of the team," Prandelli said.
Milan also visits a mid-table opponent this weekend when it travels to Fiorentina.
While Zlatan Ibrahimovic will return from a two-game ban, Milan still has distractions due to incessant transfer market speculation.
Gennaro Gattuso is said to be evaluating a lucrative offer to join Roberto Carlos at Anzhi Makhachkala in Dagestan, Clarence Seedorf has been talking to former teammate Ronaldo about the possibility of moving to Brazilian club Corinthians, and midfielder Andrea Pirlo is supposedly being courted by Inter, Juventus and Roma.
Inter followed the derby loss with a stunning 5-2 loss at home to Schalke in the Champions League quarterfinals Tuesday and now hosts Chievo Verona.
"We've got to recuperate our energy, figure out our problems and focus on the league now," said Inter captain Javier Zanetti. "It's not going to be easy but we've got to stay calm and keep our heads held high.
"This team has won a lot in the last six years and you've got to fight through difficult periods - the important thing is to stay united. You can't throw everything away because of two losses."
Inter midfielder Dejan Stankovic could sit out with an ankle problem and Cristian Chivu is suspended.
Fourth-place Udinese hosts sixth-place Roma in a match that could help determine which side gains Italy's fourth Champions League berth for next season. Fifth-place Lazio hosts Parma.
"Roma and Lazio are our closest competitors for the Champions League and we realize that Saturday's match is like a final for fourth place," Di Natale said.
Seventh-place Juventus, which also still has designs on qualifying for the Champions League, hosts Genoa with goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon questionable due to his chronically injured back.
Also this weekend, Delio Rossi marks his return as Palermo coach against Cesena, and Franco Colomba makes his debut as Parma manager against Lazio.
In other matches, it's: Bari vs. Catania; Cagliari vs. Brescia; and Sampdoria vs. Lecce.