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In-form AC Milan make sure Napoli's troubles continue

<a class="link " href="https://sports.yahoo.com/soccer/teams/atalanta/" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Atalanta;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Atalanta</a>'s Italian coach Gian Piero Gasperini (Filippo MONTEFORTE)
Atalanta's Italian coach Gian Piero Gasperini (Filippo MONTEFORTE)

AC Milan continued their pursuit of Serie A leaders Inter Milan on Sunday by beating Napoli 1-0 and dealing another huge blow to the troubled champions.

Theo Hernandez scored the only goal of an engrossing game in the 25th minute at the San Siro, rolling home the winner after collecting a brilliant Rafael Leao pass.

Milan stay eight points behind local rivals Inter in third after stretching their unbeaten league streak to nine matches, of which they have won seven.

"We've done really well in the last month or so, we're almost going at Inter's pace, and they're having an incredible season," said Milan coach Stefano Pioli.

"Theo has a great understanding with Leao on the left, they know each other so well that they can always find each other."

While Inter may prove too tough to catch, Milan's recent good form has solidified their spot in the division's Champions League spots.

Milan are 13 points ahead of Bologna -- who thumped Lecce 4-0 and took fifth place from Roma -- and are almost certain to grab a spot in Europe's top club competition.

The same cannot be said for Napoli as Walter Mazzarri's side are languishing in ninth, seven points from the top four, after their eighth defeat of a dismal title defence.

- Napoli in trouble -

Napoli are a whopping 25 points behind Inter with the pair having played 23 matches, but more importantly are at serious risk of missing out on the Champions League.

Southern Italy's biggest club, who romped to the Scudetto last term, have lost more league matches than they have won since Mazzarri took over from the sacked Rudi Garcia in November.

"I think it (the Champions League) is possible. You saw today the level that we can get to. We've had everything thrown at us recently with injuries and we're getting big players back.

"We need to be confident that we can get three points off anyone, as we showed with how we played today."

Napoli were far from second best on Sunday and went close to taking the lead early on when Giovanni Simeone shot a great chance just wide.

And Milan substitute Jan-Carlo Simic almost handed Napoli a point in the final minute when he diverted Jesper Lindstrom's cross onto the post.

But Napoli created little with the majority of possession and are left with their upcoming Champions League tie with Barcelona as an unlikely source of possible glory in an otherwise disastrous season.

- Atalanta hold fourth -

Earlier Atalanta consolidated their place in the Champions League positions with a hard-fought 4-1 win at Genoa.

Charles De Ketelaere and Teun Koopmeiners put Atalanta ahead with 54 minutes gone of an entertaining encounter before two stoppage-time strikes from Davide Zappacosta and El Bilal Toure ensured that Atalanta will finish the weekend in fourth.

Gian Piero Gasperini's Atalanta, who lead Bologna by three points, have won their last four Serie A matches and are unbeaten in both league and cup in 2024.

Gasperini will be cheered by substitute Toure scoring on his Atalanta debut after spending the entire season out of action with a serious knee injury.

Mali forward Toure became Atalanta's record signing at the end of July when he was bought for a reported fee of 30 million euros plus add-ons from Almeria.

Promoted Genoa, who equalised through former Atalanta midfielder Ruslan Malinovskyi shortly before Koopmeiners' free-kick, are 12th after their ninth defeat of the season.

However Alberto Gilardino's side are 10 points away from the relegation zone, and on the evidence of Sunday's display the former Italy striker should have few worries about his team confirming their Serie A status.

Five points behind Atalanta in seventh are Fiorentina, who claimed their first league win of 2024 by thrashing sorry Frosinone 5-1 in Florence.

td/mw