Milan face Napoli in 'scudetto settler'

ROME - Clashes between AC Milan and Napoli are often described as North against South and, at times, David versus Goliath, but there will be extra spice in Monday meeting's at the San Siro with the outcome likely to go a long way in deciding who wins this season's scudetto.

Milan's hotly disputed 2-1 win over Chievo Verona last weekend maintained their three-point cushion over Napoli, who inched past Catania 1-0 at the San Paolo.

They also hold a five-point gap over third-placed Inter Milan, who were also helped by a favourable decision in struggling to a 1-0 win at home to Cagliari.

After the disappointing 1-0 defeat at home to Tottenham Hotspur in the last 16 of the Champions League three days previously, victory in Verona was dedicated to Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who celebrated 25 years as Milan owner.

Berlusconi's more liberal use of the cheque book this season has quietened criticism and brought back memories of his early years at the helm when Milan and Maradona's Napoli was a pivotal fixture in Serie A.

The Rossoneri won the scudetto in 1988 with the Azzurri picking up two titles in 1987 and 1990, but while bankrupt Napoli imploded, Milan went on to conquer Europe five times with its owner going on to become the country's leader.

This season Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Brazilian Robinho, the scorers in Milan's 2-1 victory in Naples last October, have been drafted into a new-look front-line.

And while the disappointing Ronaldinho departed during the winter break when Milan appeared to be struggling with injuries, coach Massimiliano Allegri has been allowed to add significant squad strength, picking up Antonio Cassano from Sampdoria and Mark van Bommel from Bayern Munich.

Just as Ibrahimovic goals have begun to dry up, Pato's spectacular winner in Verona signified a return to form for the precocious but sometimes frustrating striker.

"He's been out injured for a long time, and come back had to play in a different position in a much changed team so it's not been easy for him," Allegri told reporters.

"The boy has been catapulted into the limelight but remember he's only 21 and he's bound to have ups and downs."

Pato will vie with Cassano for a starting spot on Monday but left-back Luca Antonini has been sidelined for three weeks with Massimo Oddo likely to start against his former side.

"Milan certainly have the quality to win the scudetto," Mirko Borghesi, editor of club fan site told Reuters.

"But we've had to overcome an injury crisis. We've slowed down but not stopped thanks to the clever signings in the winter transfer window."

The fight for places in a winning team has, at times, boiled over.

Gennaro Gattuso, banned by UEFA for four matches after headbutting Spurs assistant coach and ex-Milan forward Joe Jordan in that first leg defeat, has remained typically pugnacious.

"I lost it and made a fool of myself but respect is important for me," the midfielder said on an Italian talk show.

"They gave me five games (four plus an automatic one-game suspension for accumulation of yellow cards) the only thing missing was a month in prison."