Stefano Pioli couldn’t hide his frustration when Rafael Leao received a red card last weekend. Not because AC Milan were in serious danger against Sampdoria, but rather as he would be without his best player for the visit of Napoli on Sunday. His absence will be felt at San Siro.
Leao, who was a star performer in last season’s Serie A title success, was a key player as Milan dealt with Dinamo Zagreb on Wednesday to claim their first home Champions League win in nine years and move top of their group. What’s more, the Portuguese winger has already scored three times and set up five more in his eight appearances this season — without him, Milan lose a huge attacking weapon.
It is a bad time to be without Leao. Milan host Napoli in a hugely anticipated fixture; both are locked on 14 points at the top of the table, along with Atalanta, and the feeling is that this is the game to properly ignite the Serie A title race. There is a crowded field with Roma and Inter Milan starting well; Lazio and Juventus aren’t far behind; and then there’s Udinese, the surprise starters. But eyes will be trained on Milan and Napoli come Sunday.
Pioli will hope Olivier Giroud can rise to the occasion in Leao’s absence. The French forward has returned to the national team after scoring four times and will be the focus of the Rossoneri attack, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic also still unavailable. “How will we replace him? We won’t have the same characteristics as a team, but we’ll look for a different solution,” Pioli said in midweek about filling the Leao-shaped hole this weekend.
Nevertheless, the home team can take solace that Napoli will also be without an instrumental figure. Victor Osimhen, the Nigeria striker, is out with a thigh injury picked up when Napoli thrashed Liverpool 4-1. However, Luciano Spalletti, the Napoli manager, can be confident of his team’s chances without their main forward.
Napoli have been the most entertaining team in the early stages of the season. They have rattled in 20 goals in all competitions with a 5-2 against Hellas Verona, 4-0 versus Monza and a 3-0 defeat of Rangers all being part of their repertoire along with the historic victory against Liverpool. They travel up to Lombardy full of confidence.
For a team that lost their captain, Lorenzo Insigne, all-time record goal-scorer, Dries Mertens, and defensive stalwart, Kalidou Koulibaly, during the summer, Napoli have done incredibly well to bring in a host of replacements who have provided immediate contributions. Giovanni Simeone and Giacomo Raspadori have impressed in attack while centre-back Kim Min-jae has slotted in nicely at the back.
'Kvaradona' has started superbly
However, it’s been the impact of Khvicha Kvaratskhelia that has been the most resounding. The Georgian, signed from Dinamo Batumi during the offseason, has been instrumental in Napoli’s direct and thrilling style under Spalletti this season. He has contributed four goals and three assists already, along with plenty of out-of-seat moments for supporters of the Partenopei.
Kvaratskhelia has become emblematic of Napoli’s young and fun approach. The 21-year-old has already been nicknamed “Kvara” or “Kvaradona” — such are his magical qualities that he’s been hailed as the answer to Napoli’s three-decade Scudetto drought and likened to Diego Maradona, the man who brought the club their only two league titles.
The Georgian attacker’s time in Naples got off to a quick start. His first goal came just 37 minutes into the season when he drove a header into the ground and beyond Lorenzo Montipo, the Verona goalkeeper. He immediately endeared himself to the travelling Napoli fans with his goal celebration in which he rested his cheek on his hands, mocking the sleeping Verona defence.
Then, in the 55th minute, his diagonal ball cut through the midfield and sat up perfectly for Piotr Zielinski, who put the Azzurri ahead. Kvara came off 13 minutes later, already a hero in southern Italy.
Some of Kvaratskhelia’s other goal celebrations have gone down equally as well. His sassy “I can’t hear you” ear-cupping directed to Liverpool supporters was cheered by the Neapolitans, who are known for their dark humour and irreverent approach to life.
With the stage left clear by Osimhen and Leao, there is every chance that Kvaratskhelia could light up the title race this weekend. This is Napoli’s biggest test of the domestic season so far while Milan have already emerged victorious from an epic Derby della Madonnina against Inter but will want to stake a further claim to their title defence.
Should Napoli make a statement of their own, defeating the reigning champions and move to the top of the pile outright, Kvaratskhelia will surely have a role to play. It promises to be an unmissable encounter.