Only a month ago, journalists were predicting the demise of Juventus – beaten by Sampdoria, struggling against Genoa, the team named Scudetto Champions by the media back in October no longer looked certain to retain their crown. With Milan surging and Napoli not far behind, some questioned whether Juventus would lose their 1st place standing for the first time since April 2012.
It hasn’t been the smoothest of months, but a resounding 3-0 win over Celtic and 3 wins in the last league matches has rejected the idea that Juventus was spiraling out of control. The Bianconeri thrashed Siena 3-0, defeated Fiorentina handily, and picked up a win away at Chievo – no small feat. The one blemish on the month of February was of course the impotent loss in Rome, heavily conditioned by the fatigue of a midweek Champion’s League match.
This brings us to the top-of-the-table clash between Juventus and Napoli at the Stadio San Paolo in Naples.
The Neapolitans have been the “anti-Juve” of Serie A all season, a few weekends of Stramaccioni’s Inter winning notwithstanding. They’ve got a strong XI, a clear identity, and an experienced manager. Unfortunately, a weak bench and rigid coach has meant the Azzurri have been unable to catch up on Juve when given the opportunity.
Like Claudio Ranieri’s Juve, Napoli has choked this season whenever there was time to make up ground on Juventus. Whenever the pressure has been on, they’ve failed – when Juventus lost to Roma, they could only manage a 0-0 draw with Sampdoria. When Juventus lost to Inter, Napoli ended up losing to the Nerazzurri the next weekend. Juventus sent a signal to Napoli this past weekend, defeating Siena 3-0, but the Azzurri were muzzled in Udine and settled for a 0-0 draw.
It very easily could’ve been a match between two teams neck-and-neck, but due to Napoli’s slip-ups, the Bianconeri have a healthy 6 point lead. That lead heaps pressure on Napoli, whether their coach and players like to admit it or not. If Juventus wins, there is a massive 9 point gap. A draw doesn’t particularly help Napoli, and a Napoli win would shave the difference to a very narrow 3 points – Napoli have to win. And that puts pressure on them to attack Juventus.
Ultimately, however, though the media is desperate for a title challenge, Napoli probably can’t fully mount one. And Napoli fans would be more than happy with a 2nd-place finish, all things considered.
Napoli have nearly a full squad available, only Gamberini is out due to injury. As such, Walter Mazzarri will likely choose his strongest team available – the only doubts right now are who to partner Edinson Cavani (Insigne or Pandev) and which wingbacks will play. Mesto and Armero played against Udinese on Monday, so Mazzarri may revert to his tried-and-true duo of Zuniga and Maggio, but Armero may get the nod.
As we mentioned in the Siena preview, the Roma loss was probably down to exhaustion. The team has alternated results with fixture congestion, with a great result usually following a loss or vice versa. Sure enough, after a disappointing defeat in Rome, the boys reacted, and demolished Siena 3-0.
The Napoli game is a big match, no doubt about it, and there are no excuses. The team has plenty of rest; in fact, 1 more day than Napoli who played their last league game on Monday. The Celtic match is on the horizon, but the result is pretty much already secured. Both physically and mentally, the team should be completely prepared for the showdown at the San Paolo.
As far as squad selection goes, the only injuries of note are Paolo De Ceglie (ruled out) and of course Giorgio Chiellini, who picked up a knock in his return match. Chiellini, Barzagli, Vidal, De Ceglie, Pirlo, and Matri are all on delayed suspensions, so if they pick up a yellow card they will be suspended for the follow up match against Catania, but that shouldn’t be a concern at all.
With virtually the whole squad to pick from, expect the best XI. The midfield picks itself, with the MvP flanked by The Swiss Express Stephan Lichtsteiner and Kwadwo Asamoah. In attack, Mirko Vucinic is likely to start and the debate is whether Giovinco or Matri will start alongside him. The criticism Seba Giovinco has received recently is absurd, but in a match like this, Conte would probably do well to play in a counter-attacking style with Alessandro Matri hitting on the break – that’s where he excels, and with the burden of winning resting on Napoli, it would tactically work, much like the Celtic game.
The other discussion is who will play in the left side of the 3-man defense. There’s a good chance Chiellini will play, but given his recent injury, his lack of form, in a big match like this it’d be better to choose someone else to start. It could be Peluso or Martin Caceres, I prefer the Uruguayan’s grit and skillset but Conte’s affinity for Federico Peluso is well known, and since a disastrous debut against Sampdoria, he’s done well enough.
This is a bigger match for Napoli than it is Juventus. At home, trailing by 6 points, the onus is on Napoli to win. Conte would do well to force the Neapolitans to attack and hit on the counter – it worked well against Celtic, and Napoli would be uncomfortable playing against the tactic that is their bread-and-butter.
A draw or win suits Juventus fine, but a defeat would lead to talk of the Scudetto race “re-opened” and crisis in Conte’s camp. Our boys have fared somewhat poorly in big matches this season, losing to Inter, Milan, and Roma in 3 of their 4 league defeats. The Milan and Roma losses were heavily conditioned by mid-week fixtures, however, and there is no such excuse this time.
Maradona may be in Italy (if not Naples) and the match is the talk of the peninsula, but it’s just another game for Juventus. Time for our boys to suit up, do battle, and win. Avanti ragazzi!