Ahead of their all-important encounter on Saturday night in Turin, Juventus and Napoli have exchanged blow for blow thus far in 2012-13, with both heavyweights sitting undefeated with six wins and a draw to top the standings on 19 points.
Interestingly, these are two teams who have only slightly altered their starting XIs from the 2011-12 campaign, but, noticeably, Napoli’s spectacular Three Tenors were whittled down to just two over the summer transfer campaign.
Ezequiel Lavezzi heard the call of Paris Saint-Germain and his departure has turned their exciting trinity into a more simplified dynamic duo of Edinson Cavani and Marek Hamsik. However, the Partenopei are a better team for it.
Although the sample size is small, Napoli have given the impression of being Scudetto contenders this season and are on track for a return to the Champions League. After seven Serie A games, they sit atop the table, have the best defensive record in only conceding three times – an average of 0.43 goals against per game – and are finding the back of the net twice per match on average. Overall they appear a more solid, determined, disciplined and fluent outfit.
Compare those statistics to last season, when Napoli finished in fifth place and let in 46 goals in 38 games. Not a terrible defensive record, but conceding 1.21 times per match was not quite enough to challenge for top honours. Their scoring was also a slight step behind at 1.73 strikes per contest.
What has changed for Napoli? The major distinction comes in attack – where there is no more Lavezzi, instead the less-heralded Goran Pandev often prevails. After selling the attacking star for a fee reported to be in the region of €30m to Carlo Ancelotti’s PSG, the irony is that Coach Walter Mazzarri has his team firing on all cylinders on the domestic front.
For all the flair and style of the Argentine, he lacked the substance and consistency that the Azzurri truly require. He was a player who flattered to deceive on several occasions and one who often neglected his defensive duties, even due to his suspect fitness at times. Last season, Lavezzi had nine goals and five assists to his name in Serie A, failing to come anywhere near the top performers in either category.
Pandev may not be as exciting a player to observe, but arguably more integral is that the former Inter and Lazio player will stick to his role in both an attacking and defensive sense, allowing Hamsik – arguably the in-form midfielder of Italy’s top flight at the moment with three goals and three assists – to flourish while Cavani also seems to have benefitted, set to reach at least his 23-goal haul of last term with a League-leading six in seven matches already.
Meanwhile, for those times when a tad more inspiration is required, young hotshot Lorenzo Insigne is ready and waiting to prove himself.
Lavezzi may have had plenty of imagination on the pitch, but it is after his sale that Napoli and their supporters are closer to realising their dream of a Serie A title.