Luckily the top of the table clash pitting Napoli against Juventus on Friday night will kick off very soon after the World Cup draw in Moscow. What better way to take the mind off Italy’s failure to qualify for the first time in 60 years than the game of the year in Serie A?
The face-off at the San Paolo is the best Italian football has to offer. Eight of the 11 players named in the Team of the Season at this week’s annual PFA awards play for Napoli and Juventus. Two of the others, Leonardo Bonucci and Dani Alves, were included on the basis of their performances for the Old Lady last season.
Gianluigi Buffon was surprised to be voted Player of the Year by his peers. He acknowledged it was a nice gesture — a lifetime achievement award in all but name. The smart money had been on Dries Mertens, or Ciro as he’s known in Naples, with whom the Juventus captain shares a place on the 30-man Ballon d’Or list along with teammate Paulo Dybala.
Whatever the lay of the land in the league, this rivalry always promises to be a tense and heated affair nowadays in light of Gonzalo Higuain’s decision to leave Napoli for Juventus the summer before last. Higuain is a doubt for Friday’s match after undergoing surgery on his hand this week. But the papers are still talking about him, speculating on his fitness and wondering whether Napoli’s players and the crowd at the San Paolo will be as fired up if Pipita is absent.
Napoli would love to show Higuain once and for all he was wrong to leave and that they’re now better off without him. Psychologically, it might push Napoli to give that extra five or 10 percent. Then again, the opposite is also true. Napoli will likely prefer Higuain to sit this one out. They know only too well what he’s capable of. Higuain returned to haunt them with immediate effect when they met in Turin this time last year. He scored the only goal of the game then struck twice at the San Paolo in the Coppa Italia semifinals.
But, come on. Napoli hardly need motivating for Friday’s game. If the Partneopei win, as they have done in three of the last five meetings with Juventus in Fuorigrotta, the pretenders will go seven points clear of the champions, who, lest we forget, still have to play Inter and Roma before the winter break. In January, they can reinforce, shopping for the depth they lack in attack, perhaps bringing Roberto Inglese’s move from Chievo forward six months.
“A defeat would be difficult to swallow,” Giorgio Chiellini said on Tuesday. “We’re not even thinking about what might happen if we fall seven points back because we hope to leave the San Paolo just a point behind [Napoli].”
Make no mistake: we’ve got a fascinating game on our hands. Part of that is down to roles reversing. For six years Juventus have had the best defence in Italy. It’s been the difference between them and the rest; that and the mentality instilled by the big characters they have at the back. Of course, one of them — Bonucci — is now gone and, up until recently, the team hasn’t been defending to the same standard set in the past.
Juventus have conceded the first goal in eight matches this season. They threw away leads against Lazio and Atalanta. Last weekend’s 3-0 win against Crotone marked only the second time this season the Bianconeri have recorded back-to-back clean sheets. The control of old is yet to materialise. Lapses in concentration and the inability to lock in from kick-off to final whistle have cost Juventus.
Now Serie A’s best rearguard belongs to Napoli. Of the nine goals they have shipped, a third have been from long distance and four have come from dead-ball situations. Napoli’s opponents are finding it hard enough just getting into their penalty area. Take Milan, for instance. They didn’t record a single touch in Napoli’s box in the first half of their 2-1 defeat in November.
This is where Napoli have improved most. The confidence in their ability to defend has allowed them to compensate for a lack of depth. Napoli rest on the ball and manage games better than ever. Criticised in the past for only being able to defend in a high press, they no longer chase if they don’t have to, raising a wall in front of their own penalty area in the final 20 minutes, safe in the knowledge that their position play is so accomplished that teams struggle to play through them. It should be a risk. But it’s not.
Napoli have matured. Little fazes them. They have gone behind on four occasions this season and always come back to win. The grit you associate with Juventus is strong in Napoli now. They win ugly, as we saw against Udinese at the weekend. More beauty than usual is to be found in Juventus’ play. They are Serie A’s top scorers with 40 goals this season. You have to go back to the 1950s to find a Juventus side this prolific. The centre of the team’s gravity has shifted from the defence to the attack.
Juventus remain in pursuit of balance though. It took them until January to find it last season. They had greater margin for error then. Juventus are a point better off than a year ago, but find themselves four points behind Napoli, not eight points in front of them as they were in 2016.
Napoli are setting an almost unprecedented pace. Last season they established a new club record points total. Now though, they’re plus-13 on last year. Only the Juventus team of 2005 — the year the Calciopoli scandal broke — have ever started better. Maurizio Sarri is realistic about Napoli’s ability to sustain this tempo. It’s true they have slowed a little of late. Napoli scored 25 goals in the opening seven games of the season. They’ve struck only 10 in the last seven.
Mertens didn’t find the back of the net in Serie A in all of November. Put it down to tiredness. Napoli started the season early in the Champions League playoffs. They lost Mertens’ stand-in, Arkadiusz Milik, to an ACL tear and then Faouzi Ghoulam, who really makes them tick down the left-hand side. Napoli just don’t have Juventus’ reserves. But 89 points in 34 games in 2017 shows this team’s consistency.
So far Napoli have delivered in all the big games, beating Lazio and Roma in Rome, then Milan at the San Paolo. Only Inter have managed to hold them. Juve by contrast have come a cropper whenever the difficulty level has increased, losing twice to Lazio, then 3-0 at Barcelona and Sampdoria [going into stoppage time]. Two-nil up against Atalanta, they drew in Bergamo.
Of course, had Dybala converted last-minute penalties against Lazio and Atalanta, the Old Lady would be level on points with Napoli. After scoring 12 goals in his first eight appearances, Dybala has found the net just twice in his last 10. Covering up for the cracks in this Juventus side at the start of the season took a great deal out of him, as did the tension of being involved in Argentina’s last-gasp qualification for the World Cup. The time has come for Dybala to step up again. The same goes for Mertens.
Twenty three games are left after Friday’s match at the San Paolo. Sixty-nine points will still be up for grabs, which is why Allegri and Sarri insist the outcome of this one won’t be decisive. Privately, however, they know, in terms of psychology, momentum and perception, this game is the game. It’s huge.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.