Napoli will host Juventus in a top-of-the-table clash in the Serie A on Sunday. Unlike most fixtures between the top two teams, this one lacks the intensity factor given they are separated by a massive 13 points.
Nevertheless – in terms of sheer footballing quality – the San Paolo Stadium will stage a game high on quality.
It rounds out a thrilling weekend of European action with El Clasico, the North-London derby and the Merseyside derby all on offer and so we take a look at the big talking points as Napoli and Juve lock horns.
JUVENTUS NEED A WIN, DESPITE THE LEAD AT THE TOP
Closing in on an eighth straight Serie A title, Juve also remain the only team from Europe’s top-five leagues to stay unbeaten through 2018/19.
A look at the league table will tell you that Massimiliano Allegri won’t lose sleep over a defeat to Napoli as a 10-point lead in March can comfortably be defended by a team of their calibre.
However, it’s not just about the points. The Bianconeri need a win over Napoli to reverse their fortunes ahead of the Champions League.
Despite league dominance from a results perspective, the Italian giants are not playing their best football at the moment. Atalanta dumped the Old Lady out of the Coppa Italia in January and Atletico Madrid provided them with a brutal gut punch in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.
A 1-0 win over Bologna last week was the text-book definition of “scraping through”. Juventus are clearly in need of a morale boost as they attempt to overturn a 2-0 deficit against Atletico next week.
A win over a strong opponent like Napoli can provide just that and Juventus need to approach it like a must-win game, despite the 13-point cushion at the top.
A WIN CAN DECORATE NAPOLI’S SEASON
It’s clear that Juventus have it easy in the title race. But that’s not something Carlo Ancelotti should be telling his players. Napoli will be fighting for the title until they are mathematically out of the race and this game could hurt or help their chances to a huge extent.
Ancelotti’s first season at the helm of Napoli was not particularly fair to what he has brought to the club. The Italian brought about a good brand of football and ensured smooth transition to his philosophy. But a look-back at the end of the season will tell you that Napoli finished way behind Juventus in the league and failed to make it past the group stages of the Champions League.
Juventus added Cristiano Ronaldo to their stocked squad and hence strengthened the monopoly in the league. In Europe, Napoli were grouped with the mighty Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool and it still took a terrific save from Alisson in the last few minutes of the last game to eliminate them.
Judging Napoli’s season purely by these facts would be cruel. However, a lot of good will be done to their reputation if they beat Juventus on Sunday.
A 10-point lead is something that can be preserved easily, but it will put further pressure on the defending champions to stay cautious.
Having said that, a defeat will practically end any outside chance Napoli have to be crowned champions.
JUVENTUS ATTACK FACES DEFENSIVE TEST
Firstly, it’ll be interesting to see if the Italian giants will field Ronaldo, who is nursing an ankle injury. Resting him, keeping in mind that the biggest game of their season is a week away seems prudent.
That said, there’s a strong argument for starting the Portuguese. Napoli’s defence can serve as preparation for Juventus’s attack and Ronaldo in particular.
Atletico owns one of the best defences in Europe and you would bet on them to hold on to a two-goal lead. Ronaldo – who has scored just one goal in the Champions League this season – will have to step up to hand Juventus qualification to the next round.
Meanwhile, Napoli too are doing a great job defensively. They are undefeated in their last 18 home matches and kept a clean-sheet in each of their last five Serie A games.
Kalidou Koulibaly and Nikola Maksimovic constitute one of the best defensive pairings in Europe and could provide a training of sorts to Ronaldo before he takes on Jose Giminez and Diego Godin. Allan dropping to provide support in defence could also resemble Rodrigo carrying out his defensive duties.
Juventus maintained their 13-point lead at the top of Serie A on Sunday after Paulo Dybala hit the winner in a 1-0 victory at Bologna to keep the champions ahead of Napoli who easily saw off Parma 4-0.
But there was drama in Tuscany as Jordan Veretout converted a 101st-minute penalty to hold third-placed Inter Milan 3-3 in a chaotic game.
Inter, now nine points behind Napoli in third, are just two points ahead of city rivals AC Milan who remain fourth after a 3-0 win over Empoli on Friday.
In Turin, Dybala came off the bench to slot home in the 67th minute after defender Danilo deflected Blaise Matuidi’s low cross straight to the Argentine international in front of a gaping goal.
Napoli eased past mid-table Parma, Piotr Zielinski scoring in the 19th minute before Arkadiusz Milik rolled a cheeky free-kick under the wall and past Luigi Sepe.
Milik added the third with a fine strike past Sepe in the 73rd minute following sloppy play from Parma, and Adam Ounas completed the rout by finishing off a superb passing move with an angled strike.
The goals were the first in Serie A for Carlo Ancelotti’s side in three matches.
“Juve are far away but next week we want to play well against them at the (Stadio) San Paolo,” said Milik, who now has 14 league goals for the season.
“We’re a long way from the title but we need to keep going and hope that they go through a bad patch.”
Juventus travel to Napoli next week knowing that anything other than a defeat effectively seals their eighth straight league title before they try to overhaul a 2-0 deficit against Atletico Madrid in their Champions League last-16 second leg at the Allianz Stadium.
“We’ll be up against an even more defensive Atletico, we’ll have to be even more quick and precise with our passes, something that we weren’t today,” said Juve coach Massimiliano Allegri.
“I’m convinced we can go through.”
Bologna stay third-from-bottom on 18 points and three from safety.
‘No ifs or buts’
There was frustration for Inter who had fought back after going a goal down through a Stefan de Vrij own goal just seconds into their game in Florence.
Matias Vecino levelled after six minutes with Matteo Politano pulling the visitors ahead four minutes before the break.
Ivan Perisic converted a 52nd-minute penalty awarded after consultation with VAR, with Colombian striker Luis Muriel pulling one back for Fiorentina with an incredible free-kick from distance after 74 minutes.
In a dramatic finale, Fiorentina were awarded a penalty for a contested Danilo D’Ambrosio handball, which looked to have bounced off his chest.
VAR and Perisic Goal.— FN MEDIA (@FNMEDIA_) February 24, 2019
Fiorentina 1-3 Inter
Veretout kept his cool to send Samir Handanovic the wrong way, giving Fiorentina a precious point to move up to ninth, two points off the Europa League places.
“There are no ifs or buts, it’s clear. It’s his chest. There is no argument,” raged Inter coach Luciano Spalletti.
On Saturday, Edin Dzeko’s 95th-minute winner completed Roma’s fightback at lowly Frosinone as they won 3-2 to keep pace with fourth-placed AC Milan.
Rejuvenated Dzeko has four goals in his last five league games after his brace at the Stadio Benito Stirpe, following a fallow few months up front for Eusebio Di Francesco’s inconsistent side.
Dzeko’s winner, which came after he had equalised Camillo Ciano’s comical fifth-minute opener for Frosinone, kept Roma one point behind Milan, who occupy the final Champions League place, ahead of next week’s Rome derby against Lazio.
Lazio are six points behind Roma after their match with Udinese set for Monday night was postponed as it was considered too close to the first leg of their Italian Cup semi-final against Milan.
Simone Inzaghi’s side are level on 38 points with Atalanta and Torino, who beat Atalanta 2-0 on Saturday with goals either side of half-time from Armando Izzo and Iago Falque.
Icardi was stripped of the armband last week amid ongoing tensions over negotiations for a new contract and comments made by his wife and agent, Wanda Nara, on Italian TV.
He has not featured in Inter’s two games since, with goalkeeper Samir Handanovic replacing him as skipper.
The Argentine has reportedly become an increasingly isolated figure at the club, with only four team-mates still on his side in his dispute with the club – Danilo D’Ambrosio, Andrea Ranocchia, Antonio Candreva, and Kwadwo Asamoah.
Speculation has grown that Icardi will leave the club at the end of the season, with Juventus, Real Madrid, Barcelona, and a host of Premier League clubs all set to be interested in the striker.
What remains to be seen is if he plays for his current club. It seems unlikely that Inter and Icardi are unable to find some sort of resolution to the current situation and that the player misses the rest of the season, but at the moment, the future looks bleak for the 26-year-old.