Napoli to be tested in visit to 2nd-place Atalanta in Italy

MILAN (AP) — Every time Napoli has been tested this season, it has responded admirably.

From trouncing Liverpool and Ajax — 4-1 and 6-1, respectively — in the Champions League, to beating defending Serie A champion AC Milan at San Siro and edging Roma at the Stadio Olimpico.

That has left Napoli vying for its first league title since the days of Diego Maradona in 1990. But the southern club faces perhaps one of its most important tests on Saturday at second-place Atalanta.

A win for Napoli would send the team eight points clear at the top of the standings, albeit possibly only for a few hours before third-place Milan hosts Spezia. Milan is currently six points behind Napoli, the only unbeaten team remaining in Serie A.

Napoli's other rivals could also lose points. The teams from fourth to seventh are playing each other on Sunday, with Roma hosting Lazio in the capital derby and Inter Milan traveling to Juventus.

Napoli lost its first match in any competition this season at Liverpool in the Champions League on Tuesday. But the team performed well at Anfield and lost on two late goals and tight offside decisions.

The Italian team still won its group, and Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah labeled Napoli “one of the best teams in the world.”

It will take something special from Atalanta on Saturday to stop Napoli’s stellar attack, which has scored 50 goals in 18 matches while conceding only 15.

Atalanta’s attack hasn’t been as free-flowing as in previous seasons, but the team has been solid at the back with only eight goals conceded this season. Only Juventus has allowed fewer in Serie A.

Atalanta lost its first match of the season two weeks ago, at home against Lazio.

“Against Napoli we’ll see if the match against Lazio gave us some lessons,” Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini said. “It’s not the right moment to dream. We will still have a difficult few weeks with decisive matches to understand amid such strong teams as Napoli, what level we’re at.

“We’ll try to drill some holes in (Napoli coach Luciano) Spalletti’s side, like the worst dentist. They are the best team at the moment for the way they’re playing and the enthusiasm they have. By the law of averages, it might even be that their title charge is halted in Bergamo.”

There are only three sets of matches remaining before Serie A takes a break for the World Cup and the Christmas period. The league will resume on Jan. 4.

Atalanta will also face Lecce and Inter before the break. After the trip to Bergamo, Napoli hosts Empoli and then Udinese, which started off the season surprisingly well but has dropped off the pace in recent weeks.

“There's no fear of Napoli, just great admiration. It's been extraordinary,” Gasperini said. “What's important is that they don't do well in Bergamo. We need to have a great game against a team that's as strong as they are.”


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Daniella Matar, The Associated Press