Traverse down the very narrow - and at times suffocating - old historic center of Naples, called Spaccanapoli, and you will find locals selling just about everything imaginable. Street vendors howl prices of their goods in Neapolitan slang to amused tourists. At this time of the year, Christmas dominates the stalls. Items ranging from religious cribs to figurines of Christ and Diego Maradona adorn shops and stands throughout the area.
You can also find gimmicked toilet paper with the Juventus logo, or any number of Bianconeri players, dotted throughout Spaccanapoli. In more recent times, special affection has been given to Gonzalo Higuain, with ‘Higuain the traitor’ signs on display. That former favourite son of the city that left Naples for Turin some 18 months ago.
Venture into the Quarteri Spagnoli area of the city and you will find much of the same. Anti-Juventus banners amidst the famous mural of Maradona, one banner promptly telling anyone who is of Neapolitan origin that has the audacity to support The Old Lady to leave the area.
The city’s hatred for Juventus is hardly news. The north-south divide in Italy is perhaps no better personified than in the rivalry between Juve and Napoli. The downtrodden and under-developed south battling it out against the aristocratic and powerful north. Yet this season it feels different, for the first time arguably since the days of Maradona, Napoli are on equal footing with the Bianconeri, if not better.
Maurizio Sarri’s men have won the hearts of neutrals across the globe with their intoxicating style of football, with Pep Guardiola leading the charge. Earlier this month, the Man City boss claimed he ‘was in love’ with Napoli following their two brilliant clashes in the Champions League, describing them as “perhaps the best side I’ve ever faced in my career.”
Aesthetics aside, Napoli this season has shown maturity and a mentality that in recent years, especially in the Benitez and Mazzarri eras, that was sorely lacking. They now possess the know-how required to win games even when they’re not at their scintillating best, the ability to grind out results that are the making of champions.
They’ve struggled in games immediately after playing in Europe. Their style of play and lack of squad depth has been conducive to some flat performances. However, they came away from fixtures against Benevento, Cagliari, Inter, Chievo and Udinese with 11 points, and most importantly, no goals conceded.
Napoli has never had a start like this to a season in their history. They have the best defence in the league, the best goal difference (alongside Juve), and no side has collected points at this rate since Fabio Capello’s dour Juventus side of 2005-06.
Friday night’s fixture between the two is eagerly anticipated, so much so that Neapolitans requested en masse that Sky Italia reschedule the timing of this week’s Gomorrah episode, so that they don’t miss out on seeing both Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro di Marzio in action. But Sarri is keenly aware that the game won’t be decisive, there’s simply too much of the season left to play out.
The mood in Naples has never been more optimistic. Juventus, much like in the previous two years, are still trying to work out their best starting XI. You get the sense that, just like in the past two years, that eventually Max Allegri will click all the parts into place, like a very expensively assembled jigsaw puzzle.
In the meantime, Napoli need to take advantage of the uncertainty surrounding La Vecchia Signora, as a win on Friday would see the gap widen to seven points. Past seasons would’ve seen Juve chase down and overtake that difference with considerable ease, but this Napoli feels different. They believe this is their season, their time to secure their first league title in 28 years.
A victory tomorrow, whilst not quite giving them one hand on the scudetto, would give them a psychological one over their most loathed rivals.