There was a chill wind blowing around the Stadio San Paolo. Unlike much of Europe, however, it had nothing to do with the Beast from the East. They have a very different rhyming demon on their minds in Naples these days - the Scary Bianconeri.
All the roads to the Scudetto led to Rome on Saturday night. A late, late Paulo Dybala strike gave Juventus victory over Lazio in a match that for long spells provided less buzz than a flask full of chamomile tea. Somebody with the stats will tell you exactly how many times La Vecchia Signora has broken an opponent’s heart like that.
The echoes of that goal rippled through the Napoli fans, putting them on edge as their game kicked off. In this incredible fight for the title, even a couple of dropped points could be fatal to either of the sides who have dominated this league like grown men taking on schoolboys, and both teams know it.
An early Lorenzo Insigne goal should have settled their nerves, instead it set them jangling like a triple espresso.
And yet, no matter how emphatic Roma’s victory was, the Partenopei should not lose heart - at least on the evidence of this game. If there was a night when everything that could have gone wrong, did go wrong, this was it. Poor wee Mario Rui had one of his best games ever for the Giallorossi, with a deflected goal and an unintentional assist, but unfortunately for him, he happened to be wearing a light blue shirt.
Some will argue, of course, that this result was a symptom of the immaturity and inexperience of Maurizio Sarri’s side. Called to another test of their title resolve, they flopped in spectacular fashion. However, they remain firmly in the hunt for the Scudetto no matter how much this loss must have hurt. The mark of true champions is how quickly they shake off such a setback.
It is hard, though, to win a league crown the way the Neapolitans are trying to go about it. They attempt to impose their play on others, dominate matches and rely on a relatively small core of key players. That places great stress on those vital elements and also requires an intensity of effort that a side prepared to take a breather and let their opponents make the play might not have to expend. Over the course of a season, that can take its toll.
There was something missing from their play on Saturday night. Maybe it was Marek Hamsik consigned to the bench for much of the game due to illness. Perhaps it was something a little too frenetic in their efforts to secure another vital win. Possibly it was the thought of that black and white beast waiting to pounce.
Credit, too, to Roma who were prepared to soak up pressure and pounce with a brutal and beautiful efficiency. The good news for Napoli is that they won’t have to play Edin Dzeko in this kind of mood in the remaining weeks of the season. The bad news is that the psychological scars of this defeat may take some time to heal.
Yet the cheers of the San Paolo at the end of this harsh lesson should act as the best possible medicine. They remain top of the table with a head-to-head clash to come that means their fate is still in their own hands.
This was a setback, of course, and possibly even a fatal one. However, Juve have shown over the years that winning titles is as much about mental strength as it is about your physical, technical and tactical efforts.
It is up to Dries Mertens and company to show that they still have faith that the way they want to play the game is the right method to take the Scudetto. It won’t be easy, but they can still write their own place in history. The Greats Who Ended a 28-year Wait has a nice ring to it. It is up to these players to believe they can live up to that epithet and make it happen.
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