We may only be a third into the season, yet Serie A is already gearing up for one of its most important fixtures as Napoli and Juventus lock horns on Friday, in an encounter that pits the table-topping Partenopei with the winners of six straight Scudetti. It also sees Gonzalo Higuain possibly return to the San Paolo, just four days after the striker went under the knife for hand surgery.
Twelve wins and no defeats have allowed Neapolitans to dream of a first Serie A title since the heady days of Diego Maradona and co. back in 1990, and victory over Juve would open up a seven-point gap between themselves and the Old Lady at the top of the table. But while Max Allegri’s side appear to have lost some of their invincibility, they remain the team to beat in Italy – and the team Napoli must topple if their Scudetto tilt is to stand the test of an entire campaign.
When at full-strength, Maurizio Sarri possesses arguably Serie A’s best sum of parts. Indeed, nine of the southerners’ starting XI were assembled by Rafa Benitez, with his successor adding only Allan and Elseid Hysaj to their line-up. Indeed, that chemistry is Napoli’s most redeeming asset and – for all of their fantastic, free-flowing football – the key to their emergence as a credible threat to Juve’s monopoly.
The champions, meanwhile, find themselves in an awkward position. Arguably peaking last season as they coasted to another League title and reached their second Champions League Final in three years, a comprehensive 4-1 defeat to Real Madrid in the latter was followed by a tumultuous summer, which saw them lose Leonardo Bonucci and Dani Alves – two of their defensive lynchpins.
Having failed to land identikit replacements for the pair, Allegri has since been forced to make Juve more expansive in order to minimise the impact of losing such character and experience at the back. For most part, his changes have worked, with the Bianconeri outscoring everyone else in the Italian top flight thanks to their return of 40 goals – five more than Napoli, whose demonstrations of attacking play have been the subject of countless Twitter GIFs.
However, being equipped with Serie A’s meanest defence after 14 games played, Napoli can claim to be the more balanced team on current form. For this reason, as well as Juve only beating them once at the San Paolo since their return to the big time in 2007, bookmakers have priced them marginally less than the Old Lady. Ultimately, though, the result will boil down to whoever wants it more and a signal will be sent out, regardless of what happens. The question is, by who?