Ever since Juventus were crowned champions of Italy at the end of last season, the question has been posed as to which team are their true challengers waiting to dethrone the King in 2012-13.
With plenty of new talent entering the Appiano Gentile training ground over the summer transfer window, Inter are one of the contenders, while the other present threat is a blossoming Napoli side. Those two teams will face off on Sunday evening in a tell-tale clash that may determine which is the best heavyweight suited to go the most rounds with Juventus.
Neither side have been without their issues this season, but a head-to-head showdown has the potential to prove whether it is the squad of Andrea Stramaccioni or Walter Mazzarri which is truly more explosive, mentally prepared and capable of taking on the reigning champions.
The Southerners currently have two more points than Inter, have scored one more goal and let in four fewer. However, in entertaining fashion it was they who fell to Juventus by a 2-0 scoreline in Turin after a late collapse, while the Nerazzurri fought back to a 3-1 victory handing the holders their first loss in 50 Serie A matches.
Comparing departments, there are few real gaps in quality between the two. In goal, Samir Handanovic arguably has a step up on Morgan De Sanctis, but in defence Napoli have looked better organised throughout the season as Inter’s experienced centre-back Walter Samuel (who is suspended on Sunday) aims to help Andrea Ranocchia and Juan Jesus prove themselves at the top level.
In midfield, Gargano swapped Napoli for Inter in the off-season, but Christian Maggio, Gokhan Inler and Co. have seemingly hardly missed his presence.
Perhaps the area where both capture the imagination is up front. Antonio Cassano, Diego Milito and Rodrigo Palacio may look in need of the winter break at the moment after their early start to the campaign due to the Europa League qualification rounds, but when they are clicking few, if any, in the country can match their potency. Cassano has been missed and returns from his two-match ban for insulting the referee.
Nonetheless, Edinson Cavani is the epitome of the “top player” Juve have been seeking and is stealing headlines with 10 goals to his name on the domestic front, but it is Marek Hamsik who is truly thriving this season as Serie A’s most prolific attacking midfielder with seven goals and six assists to his name.
“I believe that this is my best campaign up until this point of my career,” the Slovakian playmaker suggested on Friday. “I’m scoring a lot of goals, but I’m also doing well thanks to the work of the whole side.”
On the back of his recent performances, the 25-year-old also revealed he is certain that his side are more capable than their upcoming opponents of being a factor in the title race. “The League table says that we are the anti-Juventus,” he added. “We are close to them after a great start to the season. If we continue on this path then we can go far.”
Hamsik may have a point, other than the ones emanating from his unique haircut. The position in the table is, in the end, the decisive factor and currently Napoli are two points closer to Juventus than President Massimo Moratti’s outfit.
However, the season is often a long and winding road - things can quickly change - and there is the opportunity to shake things up once again this weekend. Meanwhile, arguments can also be made for high-flying Fiorentina led by Coach Vincenzo Montella and a Lazio side boasting talents such as Miroslav Klose and Hernanes as possible outsiders.
As with politics, often the most exciting aspect is determining whether one has the gumption to truly overcome the incumbent currently sitting in the big chair. Sunday’s match is not do-or-die at this stage of the campaign, but it is an opening for the teams to show who may be title-worthy and who may simply be title-hopefuls.