Napoli v Juventus
Serie A Week 26 – Sunday, 3rd March – 19:30 GMT – Stadio San Paolo
Prevailing after such a paltry performance in Bologna was positive and the defensive phase was on point after struggling in Madrid. However, it is clear that the squad is nowhere near the level it is supposed to be, especially after both the coaching staff and the players insisted for a long time that they aimed to be in peak conditions around this time of the year.
We will see soon enough whether the showing at the Dall’Ara stadium was an outlier because they were shell-shocked, undermanned and drained after the Champions League clash or if there are indeed deep issues.
They may not be the most effective players, but the long absences of Sami Khedira, Emre Can and Juan Cuadrado took a toll in terms of mileage on the regular starters. The fact that Douglas Costa has been missing-in-action has made the squad more predictable and deprived of a menacing weapon off the bench.
The clash with Napoli comes both at the best time to send a massive message, as nothing would instill more confidence, in the fans too, than smacking around the biggest domestic rival on the road, but also possibly at the worst one due to the vulnerabilities that have been on display recently. The lead is large enough to not panic even in the worst-case scenario, and we have to thank the consistency against the minnows for that, but a strong display would go a long way.
The coach may want to test some things against the highest level of competition available, even though clearly Napoli are very distant stylistically from the Colchoneros. With Costa constantly iffy and certainly not a 100%, even if he does come back next week, there are not many ways to make the tactic more offensive and unhinge a smothering defense.
A 4-4-2 is tough to implement without the Brazilian speedster at full strength and trying out Joao Cancelo as offensive winger just flat-out did not work last week and is probably fine only as an in-game adjustment. Asking Paulo Dybala, Mario Mandzukic or Cristiano Ronaldo to play in that position from the kick-off would be a lot, they would obviously do it but I do not know whether the overall balance would hold up, considering that Miralem Pjanic is rather limited defensively and there would be one fewer central midfielder out there.
The main pathway is inserting Federico Bernardeschi as box-to-box and the returns were okay there, even though helped by the fact that he took on big creative responsibilities because Pjanic was initially absent. It is quite a dilemma and the odds are Massimiliano Allegri will stick to his guns and perhaps try something fancy only as the game goes along rather than from the jump.
Cristiano Ronaldo has a sore ankle after suffering a blow there in the previous contest, but he is said to be fine. Bernardeschi could draw the start in the trident here, which could be interesting in terms of pecking order up front. Paulo Dybala decided the game subbing on last week and we know Allegri likes to have somebody reliable to turn to if things are not going well. Paradoxically La Joya’s contribution could be more significant in that role, but it remains to be seen whether the player would take it well to initially sit in the two biggest fixtures of the year. The only other change compared to the usual XI could be Emre Can playing over Rodrigo Bentancur.
4-3-3: Szczesny; Cancelo, Bonucci, Chiellini, Sandro; Can, Pjanic, Matuidi; Bernardeschi, Mandzukic, Ronaldo.
Costa (quad), Khedira (heart), Cuadrado (knee).
Napoli have gone through some meaningful chances since they last visited the Juventus Stadium, in a game where they had a blazing start but the Bianconeri, dragged off the mat by Cristiano Ronaldo, were able to come back thanks to a brace by Mario Mandzukic and a goal by Leonardo Bonucci.
Their captain Marek Hamsik recently left for Dalian Yifang, but, even though they are quite thin in the midfield, they were fully equipped to replace him because Fabian Ruiz has sublime vision and technique and just works better in the middle rather than on the flank.
It was also a shame that they had to rotate him and Piotr Zielinski, another artist, and the play of both has elevated once they got the full-time job. Hamsik was serviceable as regista, but Ruiz and Zielinski simply have great potential and so it was a classic case of addition by subtraction.
Compared to the beginning of the season, they rely more on Arkadiusz Milik and, while that was to be expected considering Carlo Ancelotti’s history with strikers, he has resisted a little before giving him the reins, because they are a little more aesthetically pleasing and choral when Dries Mertens is in the line-up. Once the Belgian fell into the slump, the Pole marksman took the ball and run with it: he is not only an extraordinary goal poacher, but he can do damage from distance and on set pieces with his stellar left foot. I think he is the epitome of what a modern striker should be, considering his touch and mobility, even though for some reasons he is often overlooked.
They have lost Raul Albiol for a good chunk of the season since he underwent surgery to clean up a sore patellar tendon, but Nikola Maksimovic has been fine when filling in. As a matter of fact, their back-line has been stellar in the past month, where they have not allowed a single goal for five fixtures in a row, against Milan, Sampdoria, Fiorentina, Torino and Parma. Needless to say, Kalidou Koulibaly is a monster, Alex Meret is showing his worth and Allan has endless energy in the midfield.
Their offense has uncharacteristically let them down recently, as three of the aforementioned contests ended with a nil-nil and that contributed to Juventus being able to further break away in the standings, which took a lot of air out of this bout. They have generated a heap of chances, as evidenced by the fact that they have bagged seven in their two most recent wins, but were unable to finalize.
After few months where their line-up has been fluid, the coach has pretty much settled on a regular XI, especially after the Hamsik’s departure. The only constant rotation is on the defensive flanks, where Kevin Malcuit has emerged as an excellent option thanks to his dynamism, but he is still a little raw defensively, Elseid Hysaj is a stabilizing presence and can play on either wing, Faouzi Ghoulam is a big creator, even though he is still not at the pre-injury levels, and Mario Rui is viable.
Their style is more streamlined with Milik as their biggest playmakers, José Callejon, Lorenzo Insigne and Zielinski, certainly look more for the centre-forward now. The two wingers are in a stellar moment of form and clamping them down should be very high on Juventus’ task list. They are certainly a complete team and will try to pull the strings from the start and ride the support of their fans. It could be a scenario similar to the Wanda Metropolitano one, so we will see whether the squad has learnt their lesson.
4-4-2: Meret; Malcuit, Maksimovic, Koulibaly, Hysaj; Callejon, Allan, Ruiz, Zielinski; Milik, Insigne.
Bologna & Juventus Performance Statistics