So then, this is the Big One. It may well be mid-February, there are still some 14 league games to play but Italian football fans have decided that Saturday night’s Juventus v Napoli top of the table clash could well be the turning point in this Serie A season.
Not since the days when Juve v Napoli meant a clash between Michel Platini and Diego Armando Maradona has this fixture aroused so much excitement. For the entire week, one question has turned up in just about every radio and TV news programme. The issue up for discussion might be same sex civil union legislation, currently going through the Senate, or the forthcoming mayoral elections in important cities such as Rome, Milan and Naples, but eventually another question rears its head. So, then, who is going to win Saturday night’s big game?
This is, of course, a classic encounter – north v south, Piedmont v Campania, the 31 times title winners (33 if you are a diehard Juve fan) against a club that has won the scudetto only twice. And that, of course, is just why the excitement is at fever pitch. You have to go back to those far off Maradona days of the ’80s and early ’90s to find the last time that Napoli were on top of Serie A.
At this stage of the season, it seems fairly obvious that the title contest concerns only these two. Napoli lead Juventus by two points but they are all of ten points clear of third placed Fiorentina.
Curiously both sides got off to indifferent starts. Napoli picked up just two points in their first three games. After six matches of the season, Juventus were at the bottom end of the table with just five points.
However, since then, little has gone wrong for both clubs. Napoli come into this weekend’s game on the back of eight successive Serie A wins, whilst Juventus have done even better, winning their last 14 games. At the moment, these two teams look like not only the strongest in Serie A but currently the most in-form.
For Juventus coach, Massimiliano Allegri, winner of a title with Milan and with Juventus last season, this is familiar thin-oxygen territory. For his opposite number, 56-year-old Maurizio Sarri, this is unchartered ground.
At the beginning of the season, many, including Maradona, argued that Sarri was simply not up to the job. A product of the tough, industrialised Neapolitan suburb of Bagnoli, Sarri is a coach who has worked his way up from the very bottom of Italian football.
25 years ago, he left his job as a bank clerk to go coach “Stia”, a side from the fifth division of Italian amateur football. After that he coached international household names like Faellese, Cavriglia, Antella and Valdema. By the time, he got to Serie A for the first time last season, coaching Empoli, he had coached 18 different clubs along the way.
Sarri might have taken a long time to get there, but it immediately became apparent that he had learned a lot on his journey. His Empoli, despite obvious economic limitations , played some very good football so much so that they comfortably survived in Serie A, eventually finishing eight points clear of relegation. Those results were good enough to earn him a crack at the Napoli job following the departure last summer of Spanish coach, Rafa Benitez
On the record as saying that coaching is a job “I would have done for free”, Sarri currently earns approx €800,000 euro per annum with Napoli. By comparison, Allegri earns €3.5 million at Juventus but if Napoli keep on performing, then that wage packet may get fatter.
For most of this season, Sarri has spent a lot of time keeping his own and his players’ feet firmly on the ground. To talk about winning the title was an “obscenity”. When Napoli went top of the table in early January, he swore that being “winter champions” meant nothing to him. Even though he, like everyone else, knows that in seven out of ten years, the “winter” champion goes on to lift the real thing the following May.
For Sarri and Napoli, perhaps more than for Allegri and Juventus, this is the Big Test. Can Napoli’s hunger triumph over Juve’s vastly superior experience? How will duals between Argentine strikers, Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala, between creative midfielders, Slovak Marek Hamsik and Frenchman Paul Pogba, between iconic goalkeepers, Spaniard Pepe Reina and Gigi Buffon all shake down?
Will the fact that Juventus will be without at least two key players in German midfielder Sami Khedira and defender Giorgio Chiellini, both injured, prove important? By comparison, Napoli should be at full strength.
Fabio Cannavaro, Italy’s 2006 World Cup winning captain who played for both clubs, told Gazzetta Dello Sport this week that perhaps the key to the game will revolve around just how Napoli cope with the impact of the Juventus stadium. If you want to win a title, you have got to perform away from home, above all against the very best, he says.
Already this clash has had a dramatic anti-pasta, with designated referee, Nicola Rizzoli, having to cry off because of injury being replaced by Daniele Orsato. One suspects that this is just the first of many Juve-Napoli dramas.
One consolation for both teams seems obvious. With another 13 Serie A games still to play and with both sides involved in European competition (Juventus in the Champions League and Napoli in the Europa League), a defeat on Saturday night may not be all decisive. Perhaps not, but a win will certainly prove to be a major boost.