Did Napoli blink first?

Photo: PA

AS IF we didn’t know it, Juventus have shown over the past fortnight just how durable and persistent they are. After drawing 2-2 in Turin with Tottenham in the UEFA Champions League, many people wrote them off, but after their 1-0 win at Lazio, a classic European triumph at Wembley and a 2-0 victory against Udinese, Juventus are in the driving seat once more in Serie A.

You have to feel sorry for Napoli, who have been setting the pace for most of the campaign, but people will undoubtedly look back on the weekend of March 3 as the decisive moment of the season. Napoli lost 4-2 at home to Roma and Juve carved-out that last-gasp win at Lazio. The tide turned at that point, but it still looks as though the meeting between Juve and Napoli in April will still be the decider.

Can Napoli recover and win the scudetto? Not according to coach Maurizio Sarri, who told the media that his team were not contenders after that Roma defeat. Chain-smoking Sarri, who is a possible target for Chelsea and others, was trying a bit of kidology, but the smart money will now be on Juve to win a seventh consecutive title. All through the season, Sarri has forbidden talk of Napoli being champions – he clearly knows that Juve have a certain quality that emerges at the most important times, as we saw at Wembley – an old fashioned European performance that was thoroughly modern in its construct.

Whatever happens, Napoli have contributed to the most compelling race among the so-called “big five” European countries this season – in England, City have it sewn-up, Bayern and Barca will take Germany and Spain respectively and France is the one-horse PSG show. Only in Italy has the status quo been challenged.

While Juve have been perpetual champions since 2011-12, Napoli have been among the most consistent clubs in Juve’s slipstream, finishing runners-up twice, third three times and fifth twice. At the halfway stage, they were crowned as the unofficial winter champions, campione d’inverno, an accolade that has usually been followed by the scudetto.

Napoli have certainly excited people this season and given Juventus something to think about. Across Naples, there were hopes that Sarri’s team could, at some point, look the famous Napoli side of Diego Maradona in the eye. Napoli, despite the intensity of their fans, have won the scudetto only twice, in 1987 and 1990.

Napoli, like Juventus, have been beaten just twice this season in Serie A, but one of those, crucially, was at home to the champions. They’re unbeaten away from home, winning all but two of their 14 games, the most recent being the 0-0 draw in the San Siro against Inter.

Serie A, as at March 12, 2018

    P W D L F A Pts
1 Juventus 27 23 2 2 65 15 71
2 Napoli 28 22 4 2 62 19 70
3 Roma 28 17 5 6 47 23 56

On the face of it, their last two games, which have yielded just one point, could be seen as a sign of a team that’s run out of steam. They do have a rather thin squad, which was highlighted by none other than Maradona at the back end of 2017. “With all the games they’re playing, the players almost never go home,” he said. “They’re always concentrating.” Certainly, the lack lustre defending that contributed to Roma’s win in Naples suggested some fatigue may have set in.

Regardless of the pressure on the squad, Napoli’s players have excelled, with Kalidou Koulibaly, Jorginho and Lorenzo Insigne all standing out. Belgian Dries Mertens has also been in good form this season, netting 16 goals. The question is, can Napoli hang on to Insigne, who has been earmarked as a summer signing by more than one Premier League club. According to CIES Football Observatory, Insigne could be worth as much as € 105m and Koulibaly €76m. Insigne’s contract runs until 2022, so he’s going to command a huge fee if Napoli do let him go.

It does look like Napoli will need to get a win in Turin to keep pace with Juventus in the closing weeks. The portents are not good, however, for Napoli last emerged three points in 2009. Juventus have won the last six games on their own ground with Napoli scoring just twice.

Equally, Juventus know they will need to beat Napoli to kill off their title bid. Massimiliano Allegri has kept very calm this season despite Juve trailing their southern rivals for months and despite going top and gaining the initiative, he is still playing down a seventh successive scudetto. “We haven’t won anything yet as the season ends in May,” he told the media after the 2-0 victory against Udinese.

Napoli can, at least, concentrate their efforts on a single competition. Juventus still have a Champions League quarter final to come and they are in the Coppa Italia where they will face AC Milan. Napoli have one goal, to end the monopoly Juve have on Serie A. All eyes on the weekend of April 21, then.

Remaining games

  Juventus     Napoli  
14 Mar Atalanta H
17 Mar SPAL A Genoa H
31 Mar AC Milan H Sassuolo A
7 Apr Benevento A Chievo H
15 Apr Sampdoria H AC Milan A
18 Apr Crotone A Udinese H
22 Apr Napoli H Juventus A
29 Apr Inter Milan A Fiorentina A
6 May Bologna H Torino H
13 May Roma A Sampdoria A
20 May Hellas Verona H Crotone H




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