Inter Milan play Napoli at the San Siro on Sunday (7.45pm GMT, live on ESPN) in what promises to be a fascinating top of the table encounter.
Inter have been in patchy form of late but are third in Serie A on 31 points from 15 matches, four short of league leaders Juventus and two behind Napoli.
The Nerazzurri won twice and drew twice in their opening four fixtures before embarking on an incredible winning run that saw them win seven on the bounce, including victories over city rivals AC Milan and a Juventus side who had previously gone 49 matches unbeaten.
That run coincided with coach Andrea Stramaccioni switching to a three-man defence, a move that gave better balance to a side who had looked rigid in the early weeks of the season due to an uneven distribution between attack and defence.
The addition of a third central defender allowed the full-backs to be pushed forward to wing-back positions, giving them more license to get forward without sacrificing midfield cover. Inter were transformed into a pacey, dynamic, attacking side who scored an average of over two goals per match in vanquishing seven consecutive opponents.
Then came the stumble. Inter lost 3-2 away to Atalanta, drew 2-2 at home to Cagliari and then lost 1-0 away to Parma. They picked up just one point from a run of fixtures from which they would have hoped to secure at least five. Those results were followed by an unconvincing 1-0 win at home to Palermo last weekend, the winner coming courtesy of a 75th minute own goal.
There is no one factor that links together all the defeats. Stramaccioni would probably point towards the absence of Andrea Ranocchia to explain the three goals conceded in the loss to Atalanta. He might account for Inter’s failure to score more than once in their last two matches by mentioning that Antonio Cassano, their usual supplier of ingenuity, has been on the sidelines.
Cassano is back in contention for the visit of Napoli and is likely to displace the young Brazilian Philippe Coutinho in the starting 11. Like Juventus, Napoli play a three-man central defence and Stramaccioni could again look to employ Cassano, Diego Milito and Rodrigo Palacio high up the pitch as he did to excellent effect in Inter’s win over Juve.
A back three has been Napoli’s favoured formation for a number of years now, first under Edy Reja and then Walter Mazzarri, who has been in charge of Partenopei since 2009. It is rare, though, for Mazzarri’s team to face three genuine forwards, although he too has the personnel to unleash three forwards on Inter’s own back three.
Indeed, Napoli have become famous over the last couple of years for their ‘Three Tenors’ up top: Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik. Lavezzi departed for Paris Saint-Germain this summer, resulting in a change in formation that saw Hamsik drop further back into midfield and Goran Pandev or youngster Lorenzo Insigne operate just off of Cavani.
This slightly altered approach has reaped dividends, with Napoli just two points off leaders Juventus having recorded 10 wins, three draws and two defeats this season.
Napoli have conceded just 12 goals in their 15 matches to date, giving them the second-best defensive record in Serie A. On average, they have conceded just 0.8 goals per match this season, compared to 1.21 per match last season. Up front, Napoli have scored 28 times this season at a rate of 1.87 per match, an improvement on last season’s 1.74 per match.
Cavani again leads the way with 10 goals in 12 appearances, while the additional element of surprise afforded by his deeper starting position has seen Hamsik score seven goals already this season, just two less than he managed in the entirety of the last campaign.
Hamsik also leads the team in assists with six to date, while Insigne has impressed with three goals and three assists since returning to the club following his successful loan spell at Pescara last season.
Napoli look a strong, well-organised team and appear likely to be there or thereabouts when the campaign comes to a close next May.
Inter Milan v Napoli Betting Tips
Napoli are in better form coming into this match, but Inter are still a very good side and are certainly capable of making things difficult for their visitors. These are two sides with very similar styles of play and it promises to be interesting encounter, albeit one that is most likely to end in the spoils being shared.