Serie A: See Naples and get beaten

ANOTHER victory for Napoli, their 17th in 20 Serie A games, has more or less handed the scudetto to Gli Azzurri so much so that even José Mourinho, hardly a defeatist, has congratulated the club on being champions. This is almost unprecedented for only 20 games have been played this season and there are still 18 to go. But 13 points is a substantial cushion for Napoli,  and althoughcan still go wrong, it is increasingly looking as though the residents of the Napoli cemeteries are going to woken from their slumbers for the first time since 1990.

There’s no denying Napoli are just about the most compelling team to watch these days, playing attack-minded football that has yielded 48 goals so far. They are also the only team to maintain consistency – just look at AC Milan, the reigning champions, and their recent form – losing heavily at home to Sassuolo and getting a thrashing from Lazio after they ridiculously travelled to Riyadh for the Super Cup, won by neighbours Inter.

Inter Milan themselves have been careless at times and were recently beaten 1-0 at home to Empoli. They bounced back with victory at Cremonese, but they are not the Inter of two years ago. They have lost too many games and may need some defensive reinforcements. They are, apparently, interested in Manchester United’s Harry Maguire and/or Victor Lindelof.

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It has been a strange season in Italy, though. The nation said farewell to a football legend in Gianluca Vialli and the national team was absent from their second successive World Cup in November/December. Sampdoria, the club where Vialli won the scudetto in 1991, are in serious financial trouble and could be facing bankruptcy. They are also struggling at the foot of Serie A, along with Hellas Verona and Cremonese.

Furthermore, scandal has reared its ugly head once more in Italy, with Juventus suffering a 15-point penalty and it could possibly get worse. But crowds seem to be in the ascendancy with an average of 28,400 overall and 72,000-plus attendances at both Milan clubs and over 60,000 at Roma. Napoli are getting almost 41,000 at their home games. If the Juve issue snowballs, will that affect public appetite for football?

Italian clubs have performed reasonably well in Europe in 2022-23. Of the four Serie A sides in the Champions League, only Juventus failed to win through to the knockout stage, losing five of their six group fixtures. They will face Nantes in the Europa League, alongside Roma, who have been drawn against RB Salzburg. The Champions League sees Inter versus Porto, AC Milan against Tottenham and Napoli playing Frankfurt. With the fine form of Napoli in the competition so far – 20 goals in six games and five wins – could the southern Italians be possible contenders for the most prestigious trophy in European football? Lazio and Fiorentina are in the last 16 of the Europa Conference League and will play FR Cluj and Braga respectively.

Napoli have been relentless since the first week of the campaign, and after beating Juventus 5-1, earned superlative headlines such as “the Napoli hurricane”. Their firepower comes from Victor Osimhen, who has netted 14 goals so far and is the front-runner for the Capocannoniere award for the Serie A top scorer. Osimhen has been in remarkable form and at 24, is undoubtedly on the shopping list of a lot of clubs. He’s valued at € 84 million by Football Benchmark, but he would surely go for closer to € 100 million should Napoli decide to let the Nigerian move on. He’s under contract until June 2025. Napoli’s other star man at present is the 21 year-old Georgian midfielder, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, who has contributed more assists than any other player in Serie A this season.

The Juventus domination of the past decade is definitely at an end. If Napoli win the title, it will be the fourth different champion in a row. That has to be good for Italian football, indeed the European game.

Juventus: Self destruction is the name of the game

A FEW years ago, it looked as though Juventus could do no wrong; they reached two UEFA Champions League finals in 2015 and 2017, won nine consecutive Serie A titles between 2012 and 2020, and four Coppa Italias in the same timeframe. They had a strong, all-star team, were able to buy who they fancied in Italy and then, in 2018, they signed Cristiano Ronaldo. Juventus had become the only Italian team that could look Europe’s elite in the eyes. Furthermore, they were an influential figure in European football, largely because of the efforts of their former chairman, Andrea Agnelli.

The past couple of years have been difficult for Juve and their title was won by Inter Milan in 2021 and AC Milan in 2022. Their performances in Europe have not been good and they have lost large sums of money, so much so that they had to seek fresh liquidity from their shareholders. The pandemic hasn’t helped at all, but Juventus look like a club that has been living beyond its means for too long. To make matters worse, the CR7 era did not deliver the hoped-for benefits. It was an expensive, flawed folly.

Juventus have been docked 15 points by the Italian Football Federation (FIGC), which has sent the team rolling down the Serie A table and negatively impacted their share price on the stock market. Nobody knows yet the precise reason, but Juventus have been under scrutiny for months over salary payments, unrealistic valuations around player swaps and misuse of capital gains. It’s complex and Juventus are not the only Italian club whose finances don’t look right, but the systemic role the club has in Italy means they are likely to be punished ruthlessly, despite the claims of victimisation by their fans. Agnelli, who left the club in 2022, has already been banned for two years after Juve were found guilty of false accounting, market manipulation and filing misleading financial statements.

Of the 62 transfers being investigated, Juventus are involved in 42. Juve have spent over € 800 million on Serie A and B players over the past 23 years. If 15 points seems harsh – the prosecutors only asked for nine – Juventus could be in for a worse penalty when the trial over “hidden salaries” paid to players at the height of the pandemic  gets underway.

Over the last two seasons, Juventus have made pre-tax losses totalling € 460 million. The club’s wage bill is high, totalling € 352 million (85% of income) and has gone up by almost € 100 million in five years. At the same time, Juve’s UEFA Champions League performances have declined; in 2022-23, they exited at the group stage and in the previous three seasons, they were beaten in the round of 16. This has obviously affected their revenues.

Juventus have not had a good season in 2022-23, although they looked as though they had found their mojo again in recent months. This setback is bad news for the club, but it also casts fresh doubts over the future of their coach, Max Allegri who has been under pressure for most of the campaign. On January 13, Juventus were thrashed 5-1 by leaders Napoli, underlining that the balance of power is shifting south in Italy.

While the outcome is still unclear and Juventus will appeal against the punishments they have received, the Turin club have suffered a blow to their reputation just 17 years after they were relegated to Serie B due to another scandal. It appears to happen all too often and in this age of corporatized football, there’s really no excuse. And if UEFA are smart, they will capitalise on this situation to deliver a shattering blow to any hopes anyone has of a European Super League.