A whole season unbeaten, the best defensive record of all time, the Scudetto clinched one game before the end, and the chance for an Undefeated Double. The eve of the Coppa Italia final between Juventus and Napoli has all that in play, and more.
At the beginning of the season, no one would ever ever thought we’d be writing these words. Making the UEFA Champions League was our hope, the Scudetto our dream. Any idea of a record-breaking defense or undefeated campaign was beyond imagination. And yet here we are, the team having already written their names in Calcio history and prepared to write another page.
A hard-fought title run, the Scudetto was the merit of a truly stunning TEAM display. Maintaining possession, tracking back to defend, as many as 20 roster players getting on the scoresheet… our success came not from any one player or individual, it was a ‘vittoria di gruppo’! As yet another campaign comes to an end, the Coppa Italia perfectly shows how far we’ve traveled under both Beppe Marotta and Antonio Conte.
Most big teams in Europe do heavy rotation in their domestic cup(s) in order to give some of the secondary squad members some playing time, and Juventus is no different. Yet in years past, Bianconeri fans could only expect to see players like Jonathan Zebina, Fabio Grosso, Jorge Martínez or Marco Motta take the field under such circumstances, as Claudio Ranieri, Ciro Ferrara, and Gigi Delneri all had decent starting XIs but rather average reserves. What was missing above all in Turin was squad depth.
This year, Juventus have done heavy rotation in the Coppa Italia, but with a great second squad at their disposal. Instead of shambolic & unreliable back-ups, we’ve had Emanuele Giaccherini slalom his way through to goal against Bologna, young Luca Marrone overpower Roma’s midfield, and Martín Cáceres score a double against Milan. Beppe Marotta’s most visible contribution was improving the starting XI, but the Juventus director general deserves an equal amount of credit for creating a revolution among Juve’s “second string”, one which fights with the same intensity and grinta as the first side.
Lining up in a 3-4-3 (a three-man defense anchored by flying wing-backs and the Three Tenors up top) seemingly for ages now, Napoli fielded the same formation when they traveled to Turin just six weeks ago. There was certainly plenty of motivation from both sides in that game: Juventus were aiming to continue an incredible winning streak and erode the gap with AC Milan to -2, Napoli were still gunning for 3rd place tied in a fierce challenge for Champions League qualification with Lazio, Udinese, and Inter.
Well, after having been defeated during the Delneri era 3-0 in Naples, Juventus got revenge and smashed Napoli to pieces, utterly dominating and beating the Partenopei by the same margin. Indeed, the much vaunted Three Tenors were unable to get a single shot on target, as was the rest of the Napoli team.
The irony is that despite the big final scoreline, Juventus didn’t manage to score until the 2nd half albeit still dominating the Azzurri in the 1st. Heroic defending from Aronica and Cannavaro hid the fact that the Three Tenors were stifled by Juve’s attack, Napoli’s four-man midfield overrun by Juve’s five. Bonucci, Vidal, and Quagliarella would all get on the scoring, with Vidal’s effort being a particular stunner.
Considering their limited squad depth, this season has been relatively successful for the Azzurri. A decent Champions League run (that nearly saw them into the Quarterfinal) coupled with a Coppa Italia final and 5th-rank Serie A campaign is no small accomplishment. Napoli’s recent success is the merit of a successful project: a consistent style of play applied with a solid core of players resulting in a team with a strong playing identity. Unlike Genoa for example, the Partenopei have not shaken up the managerial position or gone through revolutions of their squad.
It’s certainly a concept Juventus would like to accomplish themselves, but while the Bianconeri are at the very beginning of such a project, Napoli may be nearing the end of theirs. Outstanding results has seen their players wildly desired in Italy and Europe (as clubs like Inter, Man City, PSG, and Juventus themselves eye the various Edinson Cavanis and Ezequiel Lavezzis of the team) while Napoli’s management has also frequently butted heads, with coach Walter Mazzarri and president Aurelio De Laurentiis often at each other’s throats.
That said, regardless of their future Napoli would like nothing more than some silverware to bring home, and field their best starting XI in order to do so.
For Sunday’s match, though Juventus is likely to continue their rotation policy (Marco Storari has featured between the sticks for the entire Coppa campaign, and there’s no indication tomorrow will be any different) this will also be the first time Conte has to face important absences, as those of Paolo De Ceglie and Giorgio Chiellini to injury. While this is unlikely to affect the manager’s tactical plans (in the campionato, Conte switched to a 3-5-2 for the first time in order to counter Napoli’s 3-4-3, and was relatively successful with Lichtsteiner and Estigarribia largely cancelling out the Azzurri’s adventurous fullbacks), a few tweaks will be necessary among the starting components.
Eager to use the three-man defense which has worked so well against similar formations, Conte is bound to operate a straight swap for Chiellini with Martín Cáceres in defense, fielding the versatile Uruguayan alongside the reliable pillars that are Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci.
In midfield, the Juve tactician is likely to count on the quality of the ‘M-V-P’ group in the middle, as well as Lichtsteiner and Pepe (favored over Estigarribia) on the wings. Up front, our beloved Capitano will line up in his final game in a Juventus jersey and battle to bring yet another trophy to an already fantastic campaign and illustrious career.
Indeed Sunday will also – and especially – be about ALESSANDRO DEL PIERO.
Much like in their April encounter, Juventus and Napoli have massive motivations going into this game. Both sides will be eager to win some silverware, a Cup that neither have won in over 15 years. The Azzurri will be looking to cap a generally successful season, whereas the Old Lady will want to preserve their unbeaten record with a win and end their year in apotheosis.
The Bianconeri have spent much of the last two weeks celebrating the Scudetto, which may or may not lead to a more casual display than normal. It’s extremely unlikely however that Conte would tolerate such a display. Whether a friendly, a Serie A big match, or a game against Albinoleffe in Serie B, the man demands the absolute maximum from his players. Napoli are a good side, but it is destiny for Juventus to close out the Alessandro Del Piero era with one more trophy!!!
★★★ GRAZIE ALE ★★★