Napoli v Juventus
Serie A Week 21 – Sunday, 26th January – 19:45 GMT – Stadio San Paolo
The chasm in tension and intensity between Serie A and Coppa Italia games is always quite striking and the Roma one was no different, but it worked in Juventus’ favour as the opponents surely allowed too many chances to counter, something we rarely ever see in league matches.
Something was left on the table in the second half, setting up the usual needless nail-biting final stretch, but with a two-goal cushion for a change, neither the goalie or the defenders had to step up. Failing to seal matches will bite us at some point but for now the winning streak goes on with moderate optimism for the future. It is not unusual for Sarri teams to hit their stride in the second half of the season.
The bad news coming from Danilo’s small injury was overshadowed by the positives: Douglas Costa is starting to look like himself again and that would give the coach, who by all accounts adores him, a devastating weapon off the bench. Deploying him late in matches against tired opponents is almost unfair. Obviously, that also leads to some tactical and personnel questions, nobody likes to be substituted, but every player should buy in for the greater good. It is clear that a formation that features Cristiano Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain and the Brazilian winger all together is not really sustainable, and maybe does not even exist, hopefully the ones involved will understand that some rotation is not only a necessity but also potentially a strength in order to spare energies. And so is having two tactical alternatives on hand.
The midfield formed by Rodrigo Bentancur, Miralem Pjanic and Adrien Rabiot held up just fine and the Frenchman looks to be a bigger physical presence than anticipated. With Aaron Ramsey being envisioned in a more offensive role, that trio may very well be the endgame, and I am eager to see how much they can grow together with some consistency, because the assortment of skills and the amount of technique is quite intriguing.
Blaise Matuidi will still be in the mix and useful in certain match-ups, but the ceiling of the team is higher when he is not there. If the manager confirms the lineup in its entirety in Naples to, then it would be clear where things are headed.
As per usual, the biggest question regarding the lineup lies in whether or not the three strikers will be fielded together and it surely would be apropos to use Gonzalo Higuain against his former team, but even if Napoli are reeling, it is still a very tricky spot.
4-3-1-2: Sczczesny; Cuadrado, De Ligt, Bonucci, Sandro; Bentancur, Pjanic, Matuidi; Ramsey; Dybala, Ronaldo.
Chiellini (knee), Khedira (knee), Demiral (knee), Danilo (thigh).
Napoli have been in a slump for the better part of the last three months and going from Carlo Ancelotti to the grittier Gennaro Gattuso has not really changed things much: after getting their lone Serie A win since mid-October against Sassuolo, they have been defeated by Inter, Lazio and Fiorentina. They have dropped the last four home matches. The odd part is they are having success in cup games, both continentally and domestically, where they knocked out the Biancocelesti.
Injuries have played a part, but they were going in the wrong direction even before losing some centre-pieces: Kalidou Koulibaly and Dries Mertens are out with hamstring issues, Allan with a knee injury. While Koulibaly has not been as dominant and as spotless as in the past, the drop-off to the back-ups is immense.
Nikola Maksimovic has an outside chance to be in the XI following an injury of his own, otherwise they will again use Giovanni Di Lorenzo centrally or turn to Sebastiano Luperto. Their back-line has struggled mightily, gift-wrapping goals to the opponents. Even though he had a major gaffe recently, David Ospina is playing over Alex Meret because of his passing ability, which is quite baffling.
Gattuso has switched for a hybrid 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 and they brought in two new midfielders to aid the transition: Diego Demme from RB Leipzig and Stanislav Lobotka from Celta Vigo, who both figure to play pivots in the new formation, moving Fabian Ruiz to box-to-box, although Lobokta could be used in a pair of roles. Demme is the clear frontrunner to start since Allan is unavailable Ruiz has had an uninspiring season so far, brought down by poor form, a constraining role under Ancelotti and then by the general atmosphere surrounding the squad, but he is a very elegant and on his day. Piotr Zielinski, who has the skills to be excellent in the final third, is instead on the up-and-up and has been more involved in the offense recently.
Lorenzo Insigne bagged some goals in Coppa Italia but he has not done it in a long time in the League, even though they heavily rely on him. He will have to be the one ringing the bell and dragging them out of the mud, it remains to be seen whether he has it in him to do it. A comeback to the Champions League zone is improbable, they are 14 points away, Europa League is still within distance though, provided they are really interested in that. It has been a shocking fall for grace for one a team that, for legitimate reasons, was touted as a title contender before the season.
Despite the recent and prolonged struggles, and they could easily go belly-up if the Old Lady comes out guns blazing, the talent is still there and it only takes a spark to revive it. Perhaps eliminating Lazio was that, perhaps it was not and, as many other chiefly technical squads, they are not particularly fiery in the general.
The new scheme brings back memories and automatisms of the Sarri era, with the back-door cut by José Callejon on chips by Insigne or a midfielder being the most evident and dangerous example. Arkadiusz Milik is a fantastic and well-rounded striker and can score in a multitude of ways, even though not super clutch, but they are having the same problem Milan had last season as they have troubles keeping the ball in the opponents’ territory and feeding him in proper manners.
4-3-3: Ospina; Hysaj, Di Lorenzo, Manolas, Rui; Ruiz, Demme, Zielinski; Callejon, Milik, Insigne.
Mertens (thigh), Koulibaly (thigh), Allan (knee), Ghoulam (knee), Malcuit (knee).