Napoli have made no secret of their title ambitions, players happily discussing the pre-season “Scudetto Pact” that kept their squad intact this past summer. Making an unwritten agreement that they would stay together for at least another year, their sole aim was to try clinch the Serie A crown for the first time since Diego Maradona graced the Stadio San Paolo.
They always knew that it would be Juventus who stood in their way. Along with Inter, Roma and Lazio, the Partenopei had captured attention after making a good start to 2017-18, once again playing the sumptuous football demanded by Maurizio Sarri. Yet if it was predictable that it would be the Old Lady who presented their toughest challenge, it was also obvious what to expect from Napoli when the Bianconeri headed south for Friday night’s head-to-head clash.
Lining up in Sarri’s favoured 4-3-3 formation, it was the same starting XI as always and the same approach to the game. Not so for the visitors. Juve not only sprang a surprise with a previously unused 4-3-2-1 framework, but also with some of the names on the team sheet as Medhi Benatia, Kwadwo Asamoah and Mattia De Sciglio took to the field from the first whistle.
And while there had been talk of him missing the match after surgery on his hand, there was never really a doubt that Gonzalo Higuain would join them. Following his €90m transfer 18 months ago, last season’s return to his former home saw him become almost the sole focus of the pre-match hype, yet his broken finger ensured the Argentinian’s visit was barely discussed.
That did not stop the Napoli faithful from booing him mercilessly before the game got underway, but where last term he looked under pressure, this time he beckoned them to do their worst. Seemingly reveling in the jeering, it was inevitable that it would be Higuain who broke the deadlock, smashing Paulo Dybala’s pass beyond Pepe Reina after just 13 minutes.
What happened from there was a combination of Allegri’s diligent planning, some excellent individual performances and perhaps a little bit of luck. While his formation was originally something of a Carlo Ancelotti-esque Christmas tree, when Juve lost possession it very quickly became two old-fashioned banks of four.
Blaise Matuidi shuttled out wide on the left and Douglas Costa did the same on the opposite flank, the latter doing well to deny Mario Rui on a number of occasions. But perhaps the biggest factor was Dybala’s diligent tracking of Jorginho, the Juve man limiting the impact of the midfielder who truly makes Napoli tick.
With Lorenzo Insigne and Marek Hamsik missing their usual spark, the Bianconeri managed to keep a clean sheet away to Napoli for the first time since March 1997, despite some sloppy passing from the visitors in the second half.
They will need to be much better if they are to push on and win a seventh consecutive league title, and when Inter visit Turin next weekend, their quality will be tested once again. For now however, they can celebrate a famous win under difficult circumstances, while their opponents are left wondering what might have been.
The more things change, the more they stay the same for Napoli and Juventus.