Just 10 minutes. That’s all it took. If Napoli defy the odds and win the Scudetto that their fans and seemingly every neutral in the world is dying to see, then this 600 seconds will be viewed as the most important. The most season-defining minutes of a throwing-all-their-eggs-in-one-basket campaign.
In the 64th minute of the midweek round, Maurizio Sarri’s men were nine points behind Juventus. Udinese, on a nine-game losing streak stretching back to mid-February, had taken the lead in Naples. Meanwhile in Crotone, Juve were leading 1-0 thanks to an Alex Sandro header. The title race was well and truly over. But then, but then, one minute later, everything changed.
Napoli, through unlikely scorer Raul Albiol, levelled the game in Naples, just as Crotone scored an even more unlikely of equalisers. And what an equaliser it was.
The 6ft 6in Nigerian Simy, channeling his inner Cristiano Ronaldo, flung himself into the air, not quite as magnificently as Ronaldo – ganglier and with less panache – but connected just as cleanly as his Portuguese counterpart. The ball flew past Wojciech Szczesny into the corner of the net.
For the next six minutes the gap was down to six points. Jose Callejon’s fierce shot was parried into the path of Arkadiusz Milik, who tapped in the rebound to give Napoli the lead. Lorenzo Tonelli would add another five minutes later. Juve would be held in Calabria. The gap now reduced from nine to four points, in ten minutes.
And suddenly there’s a title race again, and with Napoli travelling the 888km north to play the reigning champions on Sunday, Wednesday night’s swing in Neapolitan fortunes couldn’t have come at a better time. It means that Sunday’s clash – which in recent times looked like it wouldn’t mean very much – now has plenty to it.
It’s do or die for Napoli, but with Juve out of the Champions League, the Bianconeri have no outside distractions either. Their focus now permanently fixed on a third consecutive domestic double. You get the feeling there will be no more slip-ups, no further opportunities for Napoli to claw back.
What will be interesting is how Maurizio Sarri approaches the game. Milik had his first start since the opening day of the season against Udinese, and the Polish striker looks fresher than Dries Mertens. The Belgian has become increasingly haggard-looking as the season has progressed and only scored twice in the last two months.
Milik also offers something varied in attack, in comparison to Lorenzo Insigne, Mertens and Callejon - namely height. The chances of the former three out-jumping opposing players at corners aren’t particularly good. Especially in games against Juventus, the diminutive trio resembled kids battling against adults when confronted with grizzled veterans Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli.
Milik offers an aerial presence that can trouble the Juve rearguard. As well-marshalled as the Bianconeri back line has been over the past six years, their Achilles Heel has been defending crosses, especially from set pieces.
Whether Sarri goes down the Milik route remains to be seen, or if he reverts to type and sticks with tired trio of Mertens, Callejon and Insigne. Mertens and Callejon have played in every game this season, and Insigne has only missed one. That zip, that sharpness, that incisiveness that they’ve displayed throughout most of the campaign has deserted them when they most need it. Napoli’s performances have been leggy as of late, and Sarri has faced criticism for his lack of rotation.
Yet for the first time in recent memory, their fans will be allowed inside the Allianz Juventus Stadium for the most eagerly anticipated match of the season. You suspect this will give them the much-needed energy boost to gain an extra gear.
A Napoli win would reduce the gap to one point, and with Juve still to play both Roma and Inter away, the tide might just turn.
Sarri has stated the goal has always been to secure second, and with that now cemented, maybe, just maybe…
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