Milan ready for season-defining fortnight

Posted by Sumeet Paul

ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty ImagesMilan will have to make do without the suspended Mario Balotelli for Sunday's massive Napoli clash.

Following up on the disappointment in Florence, there is no respite for Milan this weekend as they must rally ahead of the visit of Napoli on Sunday. With key battles strewn across the pitch, where will the game be won or lost?

Having already discussed Mario Balotelli's ban and the implications of his absence, the biggest key to Milan unlocking the Neapolitan defence will come through Stephan El Shaarawy. With 16 goals so far this season, the big occasion requires a big performance from the Rossoneri's most gifted player.

The youngster spoke to the Milan Channel during the week and revealed that while he primarily hopes to beat Napoli, "if the goal arrives for me then it'll be even better". His confidence would have been boosted by his four goal appearance in the traditional Thursday friendly at Milanello.

As important as El Shaarawy's contribution will be, the Rossoneri will require an even bigger effort from the back line.

Edinson Cavani has seemingly rediscovered his scoring boots having netted four goals in his last three games. That took his tally to 22 for the season, as he continues to lead the Capocannoniere race, and as obvious as it sounds, Milan must find a way to silence him.

Both Cristian Zapata and Philippe Mexes will undoubtedly face a torrid time against the Uruguayan, but it will also require a collective effort from the fullbacks to prevent him from finding space on the flanks.

Similarly, the midfield will play a key role in rendering the likes of Marek Hamsik and Blerim Dzemaili ineffectual, with the workmanlike duo of Mathieu Flamini and Sulley Muntari allowing Milan's creative spark to flourish.

Riccardo Montolivo's trajectory since joining the club has been an almost continuous upward curve, from having a tendency to go missing in games, he has come to the fore as a real leader. More of the same will be required and the trio -- who are likely to start -- have complimented each other well in recent weeks.

In Balotelli's absence, Giampaolo Pazzini will have the opportunity to remind us all of what he can bring to the party. His introduction will change the tactical approach, considering he will provide a bigger threat in the air and is arguably better at playing as a conventional target man.

It is important to also realise the magnitude of this game, even overlooking the race for the third and final Champions League spot for the time being.

Should Napoli win and the Rossoneri go on to finish third, then Milan will most likely face a tricky Champions League qualifying round that may well disrupt their preseason preparations. As a result, they can ill-afford to allow the current four point gap to increase any further. Defeat would also be the first of the calendar year during a period where confidence will be vital. Three points on Sunday and the Rossoneri will head to Turin in good spirits.

The gameplan looks obvious on paper, stop Cavani and allow El Shaarawy to prosper. However, we're all too aware that Sunday night's game will be full of tension, drama and perhaps a little more controversy too.

Where do you see the game being won or lost for Milan?

For all the latest Milan and Serie A news, you can follow me on Twitter @italiafooty

ESPN Conversations