Milan see off challenge from Napoli to steady Serie A hopes

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The Independent Football

Milan's win over title rivals Napoli on Monday night made the Rossoneri huge favourites to seal their first scudetto since 2004 but the poor quality of the top-of-the-table match summed up Serie A this season.

A modest Milan side, beaten at home by Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League two weeks ago, would not have had a hope of winning the title in recent years when a dominant Internazionale were racking up five in a row.

Massimiliano Allegri's team are only prospering now because of a lack of real rivals and injury problems at Inter, who have also had to deal with Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez departing before the ex-Milan manager Leonardo came in to steady the ship.

Second-placed Inter may yet snatch a sixth straight title with 11 games left, given they must play Milan, who have had a few shaky results this season.

"Five points ahead of second is a good lead but the championship still has a long way to run," said Allegri, plucked from relative obscurity at Cagliari to be Milan's manager, after the 3-0 triumph. "I'm happy with what the lads did. The first half we were good in defence and midfield but we made lots of mistakes up front."

That third-placed Napoli, who went bankrupt seven years ago before working their way back up the league pyramid, are in the title hunt is a pointer to Serie A's inherent weakness. Monday's game had more misplaced passes than Barcelona might manage in a season in Spain, and Italy's loss of their fourth Champions League qualifying place for 2012 to Germany last week was sobering for Serie A, which still boasts the European champions in Inter.

Napoli performed badly and, although rain made play tricky and Zlatan Ibrahimovic's penalty which gave Milan a 49th-minute lead was dubious, the visitors can have no complaints after Kevin Prince Boateng and Alexandre Pato sealed the win. "We didn't play like we know we can. We lost our way after going behind and everyone just went forward," said the Napoli manager Walter Mazzarri. "I struggle to think it was a penalty," he added concerning Salvatore Aronica's handball as he went to block off Pato.

In Spain, Xavi has returned to the Barcelona squad after injury but coach Pep Guardiola could miss their trip to Valencia tonight owing to a back problem. Xavi has recovered from a calf strain that kept him out of last weekend's win at Real Mallorca.