Neapolitan Dreams: How Juventus Vs. Napoli Could Bring Hope Back To Serie A

With a goal in the final seconds of Juventus vs. Napoli, momentum in the race for the scudetto shifted south. How did Napoli claw its way back into contention?

Last week, we asked whether Serie A has a Juventus problem. With the title race seemingly done and dusted, a seventh scudetto securely in the bag, the question was whether this record-breaking period of success was in danger of undermining the Italian game.

It’s taken only a week for the entire premise to be undermined and the many hundreds of words reduced, in all likelihood, to nothing more than hot air. As soon as Kalidou Koulibaly towered high in the dying minutes of Sunday night’s match, the entire footballing world pivoted around Naples.

Basically: It’s back on. 

Napoli was finished. They’d blown away the league at the beginning of the year, sacrificing their performances in every other competition because they had a dream. They wanted the title. They wanted to emerge from the season as the champions of Serie A for the first time since 1990, the hazy days of Diego Maradona, who swept an entire city along on a cloud of chest-puffing, impetuous panache.

It’s been damn near 30 years. This was their chance.

At the tail end of last season, people began to notice what was happening in Naples. Under Maurizio Sarri, the banker turned nicotine-stained football coach, the southern side had put together a fine run of form. After grudgingly selling Gonzalo Higuaín for his hefty release clause, the striker they’d brought in — Arkadiusz Milik — was struck down with a long-term injury. After switching middling winger Dries Mertens to the forward position, things suddenly clicked. They scored goals. They won games. They entertained.

It might not have been enough to do any real damage last year, but it was enough to make people sit up and take notice. With Juventus’ eyes set firmly on European glory, Napoli sniffed out an opportunity. They had the scent; their heckles were raised.

This season, they roared out of the trap, racing into an early lead, and stayed on top. Throughout this time, their football won plaudits from the likes of Pep Guardiola and, slowly and steadily, people started to believe. They might actually do it.

As its lead in the league grew and grew, Napoli placed more and more eggs into this most unlikely of baskets. They didn’t care about the cup. They dropped out of the Champions League group stages, into the Europa League, and found a way to drop out of that, too.

But as they devoted themselves more and more to the league, the pressure began to mount. There was no chance of success anywhere else. There was no opportunity for glory in anything other than the scudetto. Not only did this attrition effect begin to play on the mind, it was clearly felt in the legs.

Napoli’s front three — Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne and José Callejón — slowed down. Arkadiusz Milik, now the back-up striker, was hit by another long-term injury. Their best efforts to bring in further reinforcements in the January window fell flat. The more the front three, so important to the high pressure Sarri system, played throughout the year, the heavier their legs became. They scored fewer goals. They began to look exhausted.

Juventus vs Napoli

Napoli fans at the Juventus vs Napoli match in Turin on Sunday. Photo: @AwayDays_ | Twitter

Slowly, their lead in the league began to crumble. Juventus, by now, has league seasons down to an art form. No matter what is happening, they rumble on, crushing the smaller teams in their path. With a burgeoning, possibly even bloated squad, they were able to rest and rotate, still able to bring in quality when their first team players were benched ahead of Champions League fixtures. Try as they might, Napoli’s lead shrunk and shrunk.

As Napoli began to tire, its players running like men tasked with sprinting through bathtubs full of treacle, Juventus drew level and then overtook the southern pretenders to its throne. With every passing round of fixtures, the dream began to die. Little by little, moment by moment, atom by atom, the kind of ambitious-yet-doomed half-life of dreams that leads only to pain.

For the players, it must have been hell. To be on the pitch — for the mind to entirely grasp the importance and the pressure recumbent in every single point — but the body not being able to deliver. Legs which seemed lightning fast back in September now might well have been made of lead. Bodies which had trained every single day for one purpose suddenly unable to cope. The poison of tiredness, seeping into every touch, every tackle, every shot.

Confidence quickly turned septic, all while the Juventus machine rumbles on in the distance.

More and more, it became clear that the dream was over. Draws and losses against teams Napoli really should have been beating eroded its lead. Even when Juventus dropped points, Napoli seemed unable to capitalize. Even when Juventus earned a stay in Europe, conquering Spurs with a dramatic second leg performance, the distraction didn’t seem enough. The dream was dying.

So, Sunday arrived. Juventus vs Napoli. For months, the date had been circled in the calendar. It could be a title show down, a chance for Napoli to topple the champion on its home turf and extend its lead at the top of the table. Maybe even, the most hopeful supporters breathlessly whispered to one another in February, it might even be a victory parade, a chance to take the title in Turin itself, sealing the scudetto there and then.

But by April, those whispers had turned to sarcastic mutters. Pitch black gallows humor, which does nothing to comfort the soul. If anything, this was likely to be a coronation for Juventus. A chance to extend their four-point lead with four games to go. The hope had eroded away from Napoli, even if the public discourse was very much insistent that the title was still alive.

The legs must never have felt heavier as they boarded the coach to the stadium. As Napoli pulled into the ground, a crowd of Juventus supporters greeted them with jeers and shouts. The pressure began to tell: Sarri snapped and threw up a particular finger to the masses, defending — he says — his adopted town of Napoli from these northern hordes.

With a comfortable lead in the table, Juventus needed only to draw. It wasn’t just about winning the points, it was about denying Napoli the chance to make up any ground. If this was a numbers game, the clever money lay with keeping a clean sheet. Close out the challengers, frustrate and annoy them, make those tired legs tell.

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Juventus vs Napoli had a twist ending.

If there’s any team you’d select to close out a game, it would be Juventus. That defense is not only packed with talent, but there’s an institutional memory at work. A kind of inherited gamesmanship, passed down from center back to center back. Artisanal bastardry. Like a finishing school for the most cynical of footballers.

At least, that might have been true a few years ago. Then, the Bonucci/Chiellini/Barzagli axis was impermeable. They stood 20 yards ahead of one of the best keepers to ever play the game, at a time when Buffon was enjoying a tremendous second wind in the later stages of his career, bellowing against the dying of the light like it was his national anthem. Never mind the attack — splendid as it was — this was the bedrock of all of Juventus’ success.

But now, not so much. Leonardo Bonucci moved to Milan after a dressing room bust-up. Andrea Barzagli got old, unable to keep up with the pace of the modern game in the middle of his thirties. Giorgio Chiellini, so mighty against Tottenham, exited the game on Sunday with another niggling injury. Buffon has not been at his best, his swansong tarnished by one crazy moment from Medhi Benatia and a Michael Oliver-themed fallout which has only embarrassed the legendary keeper. Like the cop so close to retirement in the rulebook of Hollywood clichés, something bad was always set to happen to the soon-to-be-leaving Gigi.

Knowing this, Massimiliano Allegri seemed to instruct his entire team to favor caution. No one needed to tell the Juventus players the stakes. They knew their advantage heading into the match. They knew they had to shut the game down.

It worked. Juventus retreated into its own half, sacrificing territory and giving up the ball so Napoli could enjoy long periods of impotent possession. As close as the visitors came to opening the scoring — Mertens latching on to a through ball and putting it into the net — no one even reacted. They knew he was well offside. No one even bothered to check VAR. Juventus was confident and comfortable.

That’s not to say Napoli didn’t try. They started with a renewed energy, a demonstrable belief that maybe — just maybe — they might find a way back into the title race. They buzzed around, pressing and zipping their short passes between one another’s feet.

But as the game wore on and on, the movement slowed. The rate of successful passes dropped. Around the 60th minute mark, Sarri realized that it wasn’t working. Like the entire season in a microcosm, Napoli’s initial threat had run up against a Juventus wall and failed to find a way through. The manager replaced a fatigued Mertens with the more aerially-threatening Milik. The minutes ticked by, Napoli’s hopes eroding with every passing second.

Sixty-five minutes. Seventy. Seventy-five. Eighty. Eighty-five.

Allegri had played the game beautifully. Even with a team troubled by its recent results, undone by its own lofty ambitions, he’d managed to lock down his ground and driven his chief opponent mad. Sure, Juventus hadn’t had a shot on target but they were going to win anyway. It was a purposeful retreat, taking Juve’s wounded pride and turning it into not just a shield, but a weapon, taking great pleasure in dismantling its domestic rivals.

Then, a Napoli corner. A minute left on the clock. A draw put Juventus in total control of the title, albeit with tricky fixtures against Roma and Inter, both chasing for a top four spot. Even if they hadn’t been able to win the Champions League, seeing off Napoli would be a decent consolation.

As Napoli prepared to take the corner, the Juve players moved into position. This was their bread and butter. Hundreds, if not thousands, of such set piece routines, had been practiced over and over and over. Get through this one and the title was done.

The ball floated in. The ground sucked all the oxygen out of the air. Kalidou Koulibaly rose up high, his considerable frame drifting through the penalty box airspace like a zeppelin, his eyes tracing the ball, his neck muscles straining to position his forehead ever so perfectly.

The center back met the cross, the ball thundered past a beleaguered Buffon and the entire world changed in a moment.

The crowd was stunned. The visiting fans, not normally present in Turin for this fixture, reacted first. In the media section of the stadium, the local reporters who had travelled up from the south couldn’t keep their impartiality. They burst into rapturous applause.

The home supporters, so used to such sustained success, seemed punch drunk. The Juventus players, too, didn’t seem to know how too react. This wasn’t how the world works. This kind of thing simply did not happen. Not here. Not to them. The final three minutes of stoppage time played out almost as a formality.

The match ended and Napoli took all three points, moving it to a point behind the reigning champions. 

Back in Naples, the skyline above the city burned. Fireworks and torches were lit, brightening the midnight sky, glowing until the early hours of the morning, when the early summer sun began to creep over the hills, shining on a delighted populace. People partied in fountains; the bars didn’t close. The title race was on.

At this point, it is futile to try to guess how the season will pan out. Folks, we’ve got a title race.

From here, it doesn’t matter whether Napoli wins or not. It would be incredibly typical if they conspired to throw away points from such an advantageous position, just as it would be typical if Juventus steamrollered its remaining fixtures out of dominant spitefulness.

It doesn’t matter because, in these moments, we’ve seen what the hope can do for Napoli and its supporters. The renewed energy, the sheer, unbridled joy, which poured forth on Sunday night, it demonstrates exactly what is to gain from a competitive league.

For Juventus, another title win is routine.

For Napoli, it would be world changing.

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Napoli celebrates a late goal against Juventus on Sunday.

As the ball hit the net on Sunday night, the footballing world was watching. Juventus’ success is not damaging Serie A, but it is creating the opportunity for moments like this. The explosion of joy and disbelief, the partying and the screaming into the night sky were wonderful, impossible-to-recreate moments. They will still have happened, even if Juventus eventually succeed.

Now, imagine if Napoli go ahead and actually win the thing. Sunday night might just have been a taste.

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