As kick off approached, everyone was focussed on the man in the Juventus No9 shirt.
In choosing to leave Napoli for the Bianconeri last summer, Gonzalo Higuain had ensured that he was now a hate figure for supporters who once idolised him.
Higuain’s betrayal shattered the Scudetto dreams of the Stadio San Paolo faithful, and last week saw them given two opportunities to voice their displeasure. They did not disappoint. Thousands of blue whistles were distributed by the club’s Ultras as the first encounter approached, and the cacophony of noise when the Argentinian stepped out to warm up was simply deafening.
Yet after 180 minutes of action, Juventus had secured a 1-1 draw in the league and, despite losing the Coppa Italia semi-final second leg 3-2, ensured their progress to the final 5-4 on aggregate.
Higuain scored twice in that latter encounter because that’s just what he does, his record against his former club now standing at four goals in four games, and after trying not to celebrate any of them, he finally couldn’t help himself.
However, while Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis and Higuain’s brother Nicola ensured the vitriol did not come to an end, the two matches ultimately showcased something far more significant than that duo’s social media spat.
Before the Coppa clash last Wednesday night, Juve boss Max Allegri declared that, “Napoli are a team that play in a similar way to Barcelona,” and looking back across the two matches, it is impossible to escape the feeling the coach used the clashes as a tune-up for Tuesday’s quarter-final.
“On Sunday we weren’t forced to win, so we could approach it a different way,” he explained at a midweek press conference, and while his side were deployed in a usual 4-2-3-1 formation, they played with a different game-plan.
Fielding Mario Mandzukic and Mario Lemina on the flanks, that framework often shifted to a 4-5-1 when possession was lost, Miralem Pjanic also dropping back to ensure the Bianconeri were never outnumbered in midfield. However, Paris Saint-Germain’s collapse at Camp Nou showed the dangers of sitting back and hoping to see out the clock against Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, the “MSN” frontline blitzing the Ligue 1 outfit to overturn a 4-0 first leg defeat.
Therefore it was encouraging to see Juventus at times pressing their opponents in their own half, particularly after taking the lead.
A key point to note was that on goal kicks, deep free-kicks or throw-ins, the Bianconeri stayed in the Napoli half, with clear instructions not to let their opponents begin building play comfortably from the back.
Napoli boast Serie A’s most prolific attack, yet Dries Mertens was held scoreless for the first time in five games. Claudio Marchisio and Sami Khedira marshalled the central area well, while the team around them diligently, with Juve’s efforts in denying service to their opponents front three particularly impressive.
There is little doubt that the Bianconeri are capable of limiting such a team, and the similarities in the styles of Barcelona and Napoli should not be easily dismissed.
The latter lead Serie A in terms of possession with 58.8 per cent, but while that figure trails the Catalan side’s mark of 62.2 per cent, the Italian club still average 667.5 passes per game. That tally is behind only Bayern’s 719.8 among Europe’s top five leagues, with the Blaugrana averaging 618.7.
That Juventus stepped on the gas in the home leg of the Coppa Italia semi-final was telling – the 3-1 win allowing them to play the return clash with confidence and even lose while still progressing.
Allegri has clearly laid down his blueprint for beating Barcelona, all that remains now is to see if his players can execute it.
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