Napoli v Juventus
Serie A Week 30 – Sunday, 2nd April – 19:45 GMT – Stadio San Paolo
Just as it looked like that the international break was going swimmingly with early returns for Gonzalo Higuain, Dani Alves, Miralem Pjanic, Stephan Lichtsteiner and Andrea Barzagli thanks to either suspensions or coaches’ decisions, the Marko Pjaca news was a gut punch. It is excruciating that the youngster got severely hurt twice with Croatia and will now miss the rest of season and basically the whole summer because he blew out his knee.
The winger is obviously not a starter or a centerpiece of the XI, but he was a valuable backup and his role was set to become bigger and bigger in a busy stretch of the schedule. His absence will be sorely felt, starting from this Sunday when the Bianconeri are dealing with other injury concerns, and further delay his complete introduction in the rotations and slow his improvement. Simply a bummer. Here’s hoping to a full recovery: he has already undergone surgery and from the reports only the ACL and the meniscus tore, and that is positive. Had he damaged the MCL or the LCL as well, the recovery would have taken longer because he would have had to wait for the operation. Some guys have returned in four months after such an injury, however the standard time is six and I would prefer to err on the side of caution in this one: the last thing you want is a relapse.
Furthermore, Mario Mandzukic has a sore knee and there is pessimism on this front, and the condition of Paulo Dybala is murky because he took tests with his national team after exiting the Sampdoria game: he did not play with Argentina and his availability will be in question till the last minute. He and Juan Cuadrado returned very late, as it is often the case with South Americans, and that is one more issue. As a matter of fact, the Colombian is not set to start because of all the traveling and jet lag stuff. That leaves the coaching staff with very few offensive weapons at their disposal. Ironically enough, the attack will all fall on the shoulders of Gonzalo Higuain as he pays a visit to his former team: I am sure the welcome back will be very warm.
Massimiliano Allegri has not given away much about the possible lineup, but looked rather non-committal about deploying Dybala and Mandzukic if they are not 100%. However, he stated that 4-2-3-1 is possible even without them, obviously it would be a rather different approach and somebody would have to adapt to a new position, so let’s try to piece it together. Alex Sandro could advance, or Cuadrado could play on the left, with Dani Alves as right winger. Miralem Pjanic could play as the ’10’, or Cuadrado as second striker. At Fiorentina, the Colombian has played at basically any position. I would guess that Cuadrado-Pjanic-Sandro, with Claudio Marchisio and Sami Khedira in the midfield, is the most likely option if Dybala is ultimately out.
Dropping 4-2-3-1, the coaching staff would have plenty of alternatives because the defence and the midfield are almost at full strength; 3-5-2 or 4-3-2-1 would be the first fall-back options.
Moise Kean got injured in the Viareggio Cup and is slated to miss up at least two weeks: he would not have been an option in the next two massive games, but I could see the coach fielding him against the easiest opponents and he could potentially play also as left winger.
Napoli has historically been a difficult town for Juventus: they have won only once in the last eleven trips, in a very clutch situation two years ago. Hopefully the numbers will catch on Wednesday, when they will be allowed to draw or to lose by one goal. For the first time in a long while, Juventus are not actually favoured to win according to the bookmakers.
UPDATE: Dybala and Mandzukic are both in the squad list and there is optimism Mandzukic will be able to start. The latest reports indicate a very strange trio behind Higuain: Mario Lemina, Pjanic and Mandzukic. That would be odd because Alves has been at Vinovo for a week, but we will see. Anyway, such lineup could quickly switch to a 4-3-1-2.
4-2-3-1: Buffon; Lichtsteiner, Bonucci, Chiellini, Asamoah; Khedira, Marchisio; Cuadrado, Pjanic, Sandro; Higuain.
Napoli are in third position and are constantly putting pressure on Roma as they try to avoid finishing third and going through the daunted UCL play-off. They play brilliant football and they are having one heck of a season. They have last only once in their last eleven Serie A matches and only twice at San Paolo in the domestic league.
After the break, they are dealing with some problems themselves, but they should all be resolved in time. The most serious one regards Pepe Reina, who left the Spanish camp because of a calf ailment and has trained on his own for two weeks: the replacement would be Rafael and not Luigi Sepe. Anyway, the Spaniard is a charismatic figure, but he is pretty average at this point as a goalkeeper. Elseid Hysaj has a mild ankle sprain and Marek Hamsik is nursing some muscle fatigue: Christian Maggio and Piotr Zielinski would enter the XI, but the two regular starters are slated to feature from the get-go.
There are other doubts involving the midfield: as a matter of fact, Maurizio Sarri, fresh off a rather controversial “Panchina d’oro” win, has rotated Jorginho and Amadou Diawara in the focal position and Allan and Zielinski as right-hand side box-to-box. Diawara did not perform well when he was subbed in against Empoli, drawing the ire of the coach, so he should sit in this one. Allan will accompany Jorginho to maintain a decent level of physicality.
There is always some chatter in Napoli about when Arkadiusz Milik is going to play a full game after an excellent start of the season ruined by a devastating knee injury. However, Dries Mertens as false-nine is working wonders and there is no need to disrupt anything for a player who is not up to speed yet. The squad has shown also in the brief stints by Leonardo Pavoletti, that it has adapted to having the Belgian attacker up front and that it struggles to play with a pure center-forward now.
Napoli are powered by their offense: they have scored the most goals in Serie A and when the whole trident gets it going, they are almost impossible to guard. Lorenzo Insigne and Mertens are having fantastic seasons, while José Maria Callejon, albeit not scoring much lately, is always a nuisance. The departure of Higuain has caused the scoring duties to distribute and everybody has taken advantage, including Hamsik and Zielinski.
Even though Allan is expected to start, Zielinski has played a lot and could be very dangerous off the bench because of his breaks and shooting. Marko Rog has come into his own recently and is becoming a similar player: very technical and explosive, ready to take advantage of the tiredness of the opponents late in the game.
On the other side, their defence is not elite and that is maybe to be expected with so many offensive-minded guys on the pitch at the same time. Kalidou Koulibaly is capable of monster performances but he has not had many this year, while Raul Albiol is out there mostly for his experience and his corporate knowledge.
Especially at home, they are ball dominant and play in the opponent’s half, creating a wealth of opportunities. Mertens, Insigne, Callejon, Hamsik, Zielinski and Rog are all quick twitch players that can leave the defender in the dust with a sudden move. They have also many great shooters and sweet finishers and assist-men. The challenge presented by such a small attack is clear and Juventus do not have particularly speed defenders. They attack down both flanks and especially hit so fast once they recover the ball.
They will be without Lorenzo Tonelli because of a knee problem and probably Emanuele Giaccherini who has picked up a muscular injury late in the week, but they are both fringe players.
4-3-3: Reina; Hysaj, Albiol, Koulibaly, Ghoulam; Allan, Jorginho, Hamsik; Callejon, Mertens, Insigne.
Giaccherini (hamstring), Tonelli (knee).