Napoli lose key striker Lavezzi within spitting distance of lead

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The Independent Football

Napoli will have to overcome the loss of key striker Ezequiel Lavezzi for Monday's top-of-the-table match at Milan in which a win would draw them level with the Serie A leaders.

Lavezzi is one game into a three-match ban for spitting at the Roma defender Aleandro Rosi. The Argentine has been a mainstay of Walter Mazzarri's team this season, alongside the Uruguay forward Edinson Cavani and Marek Hamsik in attack.

Lavezzi's partnership with Cavani, in particular, has been crucial to Napoli's unexpected return to near the top of the standings. Milan lead by three points from Napoli, with Internazionale a further two points back and Lazio seven off the pace, with 12 games remaining.

"There is nothing we can do," Mazzarri said yesterday. "Lavezzi is one of our key figures and he has been taken away. To be penalised when we are at our most crucial stage of the season leaves a bitter taste and we don't have a natural replacement for Pocho [Lavezzi], but we have to live with that. Napoli honours football and we will demonstrate our growth yet again."

Napoli have been keeping pace with Milan since the start of 2011. Two weeks ago, Cavani scored twice in the 2-0 win away to Roma at Olympic Stadium. A week ago, Juan Zuniga scored in a 1-0 victory against Catania. "We overcame another test of our maturity," Mazzarri said. "I had a great response from everyone and this means I can truly count on all my men."

Milan have had a low-key week and will have had more than a week's rest since beating Chievo Verona by kickoff time. The Italy defender Gianluca Zambrotta is the latest player to return to training, although Andrea Pirlo and Massimo Ambrosini are both unfit.

"It will be a challenging match," the Milan goalkeeper Christian Abbiati said. "Napoli is having a great championship and its results speak for themselves. Cavani is one a number of excellent attacking players that Napoli has and all of them can cause us problems."

Internazionale, the defending champions, lost 1-0 at home to Bayern Munich in the Champions League on Wednesday. In Serie A, though, Leonardo's side have looked impressive and new signings Giampaolo Pazzini, Yuto Nagatomo and Houssine Kharja have helped the team close the gap on Milan. "It is still an open race," the midfielder Dejan Stankovic said. "It isn't over yet because we still believe in what we can do." Inter are away to Sampdoria on Sunday.