The battle for the third and final Champions League spot has turned out to be one of the more intriguing Serie A tussles of the season and seems more so now that Juventus are coasting toward another Scudetto.
Just as Napoli seemed to be pulling away by opening up a five-point gap over Lazio, they were defeated on Sunday by in-form Torino, allowing Stefano Pioli’s side to reduce the gap to a mere two points.
The position was occupied by the Biancoceleste over the winter break, an enormous success in itself given that this is Pioli’s first season in charge and his methods were expected to take some trial and error before working.
However, since a narrow 1-0 win for Napoli when the two sides met at Stadio Olimpico in mid-January, Rafa Benitez’s Vesuviani have not relinquished the spot.
Wednesday evening’s Coppa clash showed how tightly matched the two sides are. In a first half dominated by Lazio, the Aquile had the opportunities to go in at the break with more than a one-goal lead.
Napoli came out fighting in the second half though, and also created the chances to score more than one, with a 1-1 draw in the end a fair reflection of the match.
The two teams have had remarkably similar seasons. They’ve both won 13 games and had more difficulty keeping clean sheets than getting on the scoresheet, as the likes of Fiorentina, Torino and even Empoli have conceded less.
Both have at least five big scoring threats, with Napoli boasting a potent strike force of Gonzalo Higuain, Jose Callejon, Marek Hamsik, Duvan Zapata and Manolo Gabbiadini. Lazio’s answer to that is Stefano Mauri, Felipe Anderson, Antonio Candreva, Filip Djordjevic and Miroslav Klose.
So, what will be the decisive factor in who claims third?
Napoli, unlike Lazio, still have to compete on three fronts as they await their Europa League last 16 tie against Dinamo Moscow. After a run of six wins in seven league matches, they have now lost two of their last three and Benitez must draw better concentration from his side when they host Inter this weekend.
The Partenopei also have fixtures against Roma, Fiorentina, Sampdoria, Milan, Juventus and Lazio in the final 12 rounds.
Lazio have the chance to record a decisive result on Monday when they host Fiorentina at the Olimpico, as a win would lift the Aquile four points clear of La Viola. After that, two tough trips to Turin away, as they visit Torino and Juve, before a hugely challenging series of matches to end the season – Inter, Sampdoria, Roma and Napoli.
The clash between Lazio and Napoli on the last day of the season is set up to be a mouth-watering winner-takes-all event. However, this is by no means a two-horse race as Fiorentina and Sampdoria are both very much still in the running.
Both sides will have enormous hunger to compete in next season’s Champions League. Napoli’s exit to Athletic Club in qualification this year was a humiliation they will want to make amends for, and Pioli is aiming to put the Biancoceleste back on the European map as they haven’t qualified since 2007.