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Football | Italy

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Napoli poised to tighten Serie A grip

Fired-up Napoli are looking to build on their impressive start to the season under Rafael Benitez with a win at ailing AC Milan on Sunday that would tighten their grip on Serie A.

Benitez's side returned to the Champions League group stages for the first time since their only other appearance, in 2012, on Wednesday and ran out 2-1 winners over 10-man Borussia Dortmund, last year's beaten finalists.

Napoli share the lead of Italy's top flight with AS Roma, who will go top if they secure at least a draw in the derby against Lazio in Sunday's evening game.

But after their runner-up place behind Juventus last season, many feel Napoli can claim a first title since their second scudetto in 1990 when Diego Maradona still played at the club.

The Neapolitans undoubtedly benefited on Wednesday after Dortmund had goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller red-carded on the stroke of half-time at the San Paolo.

But with three wins in as many league games and after their lightning start in Europe, the signs so far suggest forwards Gonzalo Higuain, Lorenzo Insigne, Jose Callejon, Goran Pandev and the league's top scorer, Marek Hamsik, are blossoming under Benitez.

Higuain, who opened the scoring just before the half hour, seems reborn since he joined Napoli following an unhappy spell at Real Madrid and suggested Benitez should be credited.

"We have a great team, a great coach and I hope we can go on like this," the Argentine told Sky Sport Italia.

"A striker likes to feel he is important and know he has the faith of the coach."

Although AC Milan ran out 2-0 winners over Celtic, the Rossoneri failed to convince against the Scottish champions, who dominated for long spells in the second half.

Milan only broke the deadlock in the 82nd minute when Celtic defender Emilio Izaguirre deflected a Cristian Zapata shot past his own goalkeeper, with Sulley Muntari providing the winner from a rebound minutes later.

Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri was quick to turn his attention to Sunday when he will still be without a host of first team regulars.

Having claimed just one win in their last three league games, Allegri can only look at Napoli in admiration: "Compliments to Benitez. In two months he's created a strong team which is tactically versatile.

"For us it will be a difficult game. But we still have some fresh legs, and plenty of enthusiasm."

With only mid-table games being played on Saturday, all eyes will be on Inter, Fiorentina and Juventus who sit two points adrift of Napoli and Roma and could go top in the event of victory.

Inter, a disappointing ninth last year, have enjoyed a positive start under former Napoli coach Walter Mazzarri and will expect three points when they visit promoted Sassuolo, who prop up the table after three defeats and just one goal.

Juventus will be expecting the same return when they host Verona in Turin, where midfielder Claudio Marchisio could return from a knee injury suffered in the Italian Super Cup final triumph over Lazio last month.

Fiorentina, held 1-1 at home to Cagliari last week, face a potential banana skin when they travel to Atalanta without injured striker Mario Gomez and midfielder Juan Cuadrado.

With eight goals and just one conceded Rome, meanwhile, are flying under new coach Rudi Garcia and will be expected to dominate a Lazio side that has shipped five in three games for one defeat.

Fixtures (times GMT)


Cagliari v Sampdoria, Chievo v Verona (both 1600), Genoa v Livorno (1845)


Sassuolo v Inter (1030), Atalanta v Fiorentina, Bologna v Torino, Catania v Parma, Juventus v Verona, Roma v Lazio (all 1300), Milan v Napoli (1845)


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