ROME, February 25 – Napoli will find out if they are truly ready to challenge for the Serie A crown this season when they travel to AC Milan in the crunch clash of the weekend ties.
The game has been moved to Monday night to give the southerners an extra day’s rest following their Europa League exertions against Villarreal on Thursday.
But the super-clash between the top two in the league will give Walter Mazzarri’s team the chance to show what they are made of.
In a season full of surprises that initially saw Lazio leading the table and champions Inter Milan struggling down in eighth place at the turn of the year, Napoli appear to have demonstrated that they have the staying power to go all the way.
Still splitting the two Milan clubs with a mere 12 matches to play in the season, Napoli must genuinely be considered as very real title contenders for the first time since the days of Diego Maradona.
And although the club’s staff and players refuse to even pronounce the word ‘title’ there is no denying that they are where they are on merit.
However, there has been one thing missing from their pursuit of glory this season and that has been the ability to cut the mustard against the very best.
They may have done the double over Roma this season and thumped Juventus 3-0 at home in January but both sides are suffering from transitional campaigns and currently sit sixth and seventh respectively.
When it mattered against the two big Milanese sides, Napoli came up short.
They lost 2-1 at home to Milan earlier on in the season despite enjoying a large part of the game and also proved frail defensively when they played away to Inter and lost 3-1.
In two games against Liverpool in the Europa League group stage they also failed to secure a win.
For them to go the whole way this season they are going to need to prove they can also come out on top in the biggest games where there is the most at stake.
They sit three points behind Milan and two ahead of Inter, meaning a win for Mazzarri’s team could result in the top three being separated by only two points when the weekend is up.
If there is one thing in their favour it is that Milan have also proved susceptible to negative results in their biggest home games of the season.
Not only did they lose 2-1 to Juventus and 1-0 to Roma but Tottenham came to the San Siro in the Champions League knock-out phase and also left with a crucial 1-0 success.
Milan also failed to beat fourth placed Lazio at home and needed a pair of controversial goals to sneak a 2-2 draw against Real Madrid in the Champions League group stages.
A sign that Milan may be feeling the strain came from vice-president Adriano Galliano who was at pains to tell Radio Italia that the game would be no more important than any other.
"It’s keenly expected because it’s top against second but there’s still just three out of the 36 points left on offer," he said.
"Let’s not forget that a victory over Napoli won’t mean we’ve won the title, and vice versa."
The later start to the game means Inter can leapfrog Napoli on Sunday if they win away to Sampdoria.
Juventus host Bologna on Saturday night and Roma entertain Parma on Sunday as the two traditional heavyweights look to drag themselves back into Champions League qualification contention.
They sit seven and six points respectively behind Lazio, who travel to Cagliari.
Fixtures (1400 GMT unless stated):
Juventus v Bologna (1945)
Catania v Genoa (1130), Bari v Fiorentina, Brescia v Lecce, Cagliari v Lazio, Cesena v Chievo, Palermo v Udinese, Roma v Parma, Sampdoria v Inter Milan (1945)
AC Milan v Napoli (1945)