Rafa's perfect game plan brings Juve juggernaut to a halt
As the seemingly unstoppable Juventus bandwagon rolled into Naples on Sunday, Italy was glued to its television screens. At the start of the season this was expected to be a title showdown, but instead it was only an opportunity for Napoli to grab temporary bragging rights and cement third place in Serie A.
For most people the title race has been over for some time, but Juventus still had records to chase. The midweek win over Parma saw the defending champions set a new Serie A record of 15 consecutive home wins, a run which started on Matchday Two with a 4-1 hammering of Lazio. In doing so they also broke the 80-point barrier. With eight matches to go, the century mark looked very much within their sights.
On top of that, Antonio Conte’s side had defeated every other team but Fiorentina in the top flight at least once. Inter, Lazio and Hellas Verona could all take bows of sorts, as the only teams to hold the champions at their own stadiums so far.
Mind the gap
Twenty points separated Juventus and Napoli going into their highly anticipated match-up, but that hefty deficit was down more to Napoli’s short but decisive periods of poor results. They followed defeat at Juventus in November with a home loss to Parma, and in January drew with Bologna and Chievo before producing their worst display at Atalanta in a 3-0 tonking.
Owner Aurelio De Laurentiis may not have expected Rafa Benitez to land the title in his first season in charge, but there will be some disappointment if Napoli don't match their second place of last year considering that a hefty slice of the €64.5 million they received for Edinson Cavani has gone on new signings.
Chief among them were the former Real Madrid pair Gonzalo Higuain, who has repaid a good slice of his €35m transfer fee with 14 goals, and Josè Callèjon, who had weighed in with an impressive 11 net-ripplers from the right wing before Sunday's game. Add in Dries Mertens and January signing Jorginho to supplement Marek Hamsik and Lorenzo Insigne, and there are the makings of a team that could easily match the Old Lady.
The difference is that Juve’s threat comes from all over the pitch, with a balance between creativity and muscle; Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal combining in midfield make them an imposing force. Vidal is the league’s top goalscorer from midfield with 11 goals, while Pogba is the team’s second-top-scoring middle man on six – quite a few of them contenders for goal of the season.
Needless to say Juventus have netted the most goals (67) but there is one slight blotch on their dominance: they haven't conceded the fewest. That distinction belongs to Roma, who have still shipped just 15 after their 2-0 win at Sassuolo on Sunday.
However, Juve had only leaked five more than the Romans while Napoli had let in 32, so an expectant San Paolo crowd were poised for a close encounter. Conte was missing the league’s top goalscorer and player of the year elect Carlos Tevez, so Dani Osvaldo partnered Fernando Llorente in attack. Aside from the injured Andrea Barzagli in the back three, it was a regular starting XI.
Benitez is the master of preparing for one-off matches, and his plan was to attack Juventus with pace down the flanks not only through Callejon and Insigne, but also full-backs Henrique and Faouzi Ghoulam. They caused the visitors endless problems, forcing wing-backs Stephan Lichtsteiner and Kwadwo Asamoah further back to defend on the edge of their own area.
With Juve forming a deep-lying back five, Napoli had the freedom in midfield to retain possession. Their dominance could have been rewarded early on but Hamsik had a goal rightfully ruled out for offside, and then the Napoli captain was denied by Gianluigi Buffon’s reflex save.
In fact, the veteran goalkeeper had one of his busiest evenings of the season, making five saves in the first 30 minutes, while at the other end Pepe Reina had one tame Lichtsteiner effort to deal with.
However, when the breakthrough came eight minutes before the break there was a certain amount of (unintentional) help from Giorgio Chiellini. The defender had been temporarily forced off to remove his blood-stained shirt, but rather than hurry along and change he got involved in an argument with Benitez.
When he finally sprinted back onto the pitch his side were short at the back as Callejon stole in behind Asamoah to slot home. Replays showed the Spaniard was marginally offside, but the fact that Chiellini would have been covering that area of the pitch also played a part in the goal.
Having created absolutely nothing in attack, one would have expected a more adventurous approach from Conte after the break. After all, his side had scored in their last 43 league games. Instead, though, Napoli maintained pressure high up the pitch with central defenders Federico Fernandez and Raul Albiol keeping Osvaldo and Llorente in check. Meanwhile, the hard-working Hamsik, Gokhan Inler and Jorginho were overshadowing Andrea Pirlo, Vidal and Pogba so much that the latter was withdrawn on the hour mark for Claudio Marchisio.
Conte had already been forced to remove Asamoah – who was run ragged by Callejon – and brought on Mauricio Isla, switching Lichtsteiner to the left. Benitez could hold back on any substitutions until a more appropriate moment thanks to his side's effectiveness in keeping the opposition pinned back.
Insigne in particular was lively, and, rather than fade as the second half wore on, the little winger picked up the pace. It can only have impressed Italy coach Cesare Prandelli. When Benitez turned to the bench it proved decisive in creating the second goal, as Goran Pandev set up Mertens, whose well-struck shot left Buffon completely helpless.
The result may not take the shine off Juve’s season – the leaders still have an 11-point lead at the top with games running out – but looking ahead to next season Conte will need reinforcements to cope with what will be another crowded fixture list. Having 13 or 14 regulars will not be enough to compete in Europe.
Napoli will be hoping Parma can take points off Roma in Wednesday's re-arranged fixture to keep alive their chances of grabbing the runners-up spot. But even if they finish third, Benitez has the strength and depth at his disposal for the Azzurri to be genuine title contenders next season.