Storylines abound ahead of Saturday’s top-of-the-table clash between Juventus and Napoli in Turin. Not that this should come as a surprise to anyone. Juventus, the Scudetto holders, are unbeaten in 46 league games dating back to the spring of 2011 as they make their preparations for a match against the side best fitted to take their title away in seven months time. Napoli, meanwhile, defeated Juventus in the Coppa Italia final last May and are currently level with the Bianconeri on 19 points from seven rounds.
Yes, Lazio and Inter Milan are just five points back of the pair heading into the weekend’s action, but it might as well be 20—such is the gulf in quality between Juventus and Napoli and everyone else in Serie A.
To date the top two have combined for 12 wins out of 14 matches and have a positive goal difference of 24. The rest of the division comes in at -24, and some of the other would-be contenders—namely the two Milan sides—are at least a season away from making a serious run at the championship. Inter are showing some promise but are in something of a restructuring year; AC Milan have already endured a woeful start and have nowhere near the depth required to pose a legitimate threat.
The road to the Scudetto quite obviously goes through Turin, but if any side is capable of going there and coming away with something it’s Napoli, and they’re about to get a chance to do exactly that. Already a handful of former Serie A players are throwing their lot in with the Partenopei (including Lothar Matthaus and Fabio Cannavaro), and a one-time Juventus icon is among them.
“It’s going to be a tough game because Napoli are very solid, and they have not conceded a goal away from home so far,” said Alessio Tacchinardi in a radio interview with Radio Mana Mana earlier this week. Tacchinardi, 37, played 11 seasons for Juventus and was capped 13 times by Italy. “[Napoli manager Walter] Mazzarri’s team are stronger than Juve,” he added, “but it is always annoying to play the Bianconeri.”
That might be putting it lightly. Already, Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis has fumed at what he believed was preferential treatment received by the Juventus contingent on duty with Italy during the recent round of internationals. The eight Bianconeri players (Napoli contributed just two) were given more favourable training regimens by the Azzurri coaching staff, he claimed, although national team manager Cesare Prandelli dismissed the allegations out of hand, telling reporters on Monday that he refused to be bothered by domestic rivalries.
“Juve-Napoli? We do not care about that,” he said. “It’s a game that concerns fans and journalists only. All we’re worried about is the three points [against Denmark], and I hope everyone is concentrating on this game.”
But more than a few eyebrows went up when Italy’s captain and number-one goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who also wears the armband at Juventus, pulled out of the Denmark match with a thigh injury. His replacement? Napoli’s Morgan De Sanctis, who will be starting opposite Buffon on Saturday. It didn’t help when Buffon said he’d require only “two or three days” to recover.
When questioned about his goalkeeper Juventus director general Beppe Marotta leapt to Buffon’s defense,
“There is nothing to say on Buffon,” he said. “He is the captain of Juventus and the captain of Italy. The allegations are unfounded. Wearing the blue shirt of Italy is the highest aspiration for all players and Buffon is not the kind of guy to quit at the first problem.”
His assurances will have done little to placate the Neapolitans although they, themselves, have had no shortage of distractions in the days leading up to their most important match of the season so far.
Mazzarri has been foremost among them. Currently on a one-year contract following a series of rows with De Laurentiis (Napoli’s official website once claimed the manager had been sacked, only for the notice to be removed after the two men resolved their differences with the help of a mediator), the 51-year-old stated this week that he may step down from his post at the end of the season. In an interview with La Republicca, he also admitted he nearly resigned following the Super-Coppa loss to Juventus in Beijing.
“I live one day at a time,” he said. “On occasions I hear and see things that make me want to quit, to just give up…Could I stop at the end of the season? Yes, that’s possible.”
Mazzarri has also refused to open discussions regarding his contract, which expires in June 2013. But De Laurentiis continues to insist he isn’t bothered by the awkward relationship with his manager, saying, “It’s no problem—that’s what Mazzarri is like. When both of us consider it the right time, we will talk about a renewal.”
In any event, the Mazzarri situation will have less to do with Napoli’s fortunes in Turin on Saturday than the condition of Serie A goalscoring leader Edinson Cavani. As of late Thursday the Uruguay striker had yet to return to Italy following a World Cup qualifier in Bolivia due to a flight delay, and given the tight schedule he will be able to train with his teammates just once before kickoff.
Juventus also had a key player engaged in South American World Cup qualifying during the international break, although midfielder Arturo Vidal arrived back in Turin well ahead of time after a red card against Ecuador last Friday allowed him to miss Tuesday’s match against Argentina. Not surprisingly, he was immediately accused of getting himself intentionally ejected, and he pleaded with the press to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“Ours is a nation of conspiracy,” said Marotta, the Juventus director general. “Everything needs to be taken back to sport.”
Easier said than done when it comes to Italian football, especially with a match of such magnitude so close at hand.
Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @peterssoccer