MILAN (AP) — Over the next three weeks, AC Milan coach Stefano Pioli will have three chances to do something he’s only done once before: beat Napoli counterpart Luciano Spalletti.
Milan visits runaway leader Napoli on Sunday in Serie A before taking on the southern team over two legs in the Champions League quarterfinals. The three matches will be played in 17 days.
“Now there’s the Serie A match and that’s very important for us. Napoli has great players and is having a fantastic season,” Pioli said. “But the Champions League is different. All the teams are impressive and that gives us so much motivation to do well.”
Pioli has only managed one win in 13 matches against teams coached by Spalletti. Three matches ended in draws.
Two of Spalletti’s nine victories, both when he was the coach of Roma, contributed to Pioli’s departure first from Parma and later from Lazio.
While another loss is unlikely to see Pioli lose his job this time, it could hurt Milan’s chances of qualifying for next season’s Champions League. The team is in fourth place in Serie A — the final Champions League spot — one point ahead of Roma and three ahead of Atalanta. Only seven points separate second place from sixth.
Napoli, meanwhile, is 19 points ahead of second-place Lazio and nearly assured of winning its first Serie A title since Diego Maradona led the club to its only two Italian league championships in 1987 and 1990.
Napoli has won 23 of its 27 Serie A matches this season, losing only twice, while scoring a league-leading 64 goals. The team’s performance has astounded just about everyone.
“In the summer they lost important players and brought in ones that were strong but little known,” Pioli said. “It was really hard to foresee that they would have a season like this.
“Napoli has shown strength and continuity, the characteristics of a great team. But no one is unbeatable.”
The league is one thing, but getting this far in the Champions League is unchartered territory for Napoli. The club has never before advanced to the quarterfinals of Europe’s main club competition.
Milan has a much stronger pedigree, winning the European title seven times. But Milan hasn’t played in the quarterfinals since 2012 and hasn’t gone beyond that since winning the last of their titles in 2007.
“We are especially attached to this competition because of the tradition Milan has,” Pioli said. “We are trying to write our own history. Playing in the quarterfinals is something emotional. But in order to make sure this is a positive year we have to play in the Champions League next year, too, and that will need to happen via the league.”
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