Napoli 1-1 Juventus: A fair ending after an entertaining 90 minutes
Napoli hosted Juventus in a top of the table clash at the San Paolo hoping for a win to close down the gap to 3 points. There were no surprises in the starting lineups from both the managers.
Last season, this encounter produced a memorable 3-3 scoreline, as Antonio Conte trumped Mazzarri by mirroring Napoli’s formation. Since then, both teams are all square in their head to head league with a win apiece. Juventus haven’t had a great season as compared to the previous one, where they were unbeaten and won the Scudetto. After their initial surge of wins, came the drop in form and subsequently points. Napoli, on the other hand, were scantily consistent with their results. With only one win in the last 5 games and 3 draws and a shock exit from Europa League, much improvement was demanded from Marrazzi’s side.
Napoli (3-4-3): De Sanctis – Britos, Campangaro, Cannavaro – Zuniga, Inler, Behrami, Maggio – Hamsik, Cavani, Pandev
Juventus (3-5-2): Buffon – Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini – Liechsteiner, Marchisio, Vidal, Pirlo, Peluso – Giovinco, Vucinic
Both Managers featured their best 11, the only new face being Peluso for Juventus. Asamoah was limited to the bench and Peluso was given the nod ahead of him at the left wingback position. Juventus were in their customary 3-5-2 and Napoli in their ever impressive 3-4-3 formation. With 3 defenders at the back for both the teams, much of the football was expected to be played in the middle of the park. While Juventus had the Italian national team trio of Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini at the back, Napoli were forced to play Britos alongside Cannavaro and Campangaro as Gamberini was out with injury. As the formations suggest, Juventus had an upper hand in the midfield and Napoli in attack, so it was all down to how well both the teams made the most out of their strengths.
Players like Pirlo and Maggio are often the difference between winning and losing. Maggio has been the most effective weapon for Napoli for the last 3 seasons, making surging runs on the right flank and drilling in some exquisite crosses. Pirlo needs no introduction. The Italian legend is all about precision and panache. His midfield dominance has earned Italy, Milan and Juventus many titles and he was always going to be the key player in the most important fixture of Serie A this season. Napoli had to stop Pirlo from getting his rhythm and Juve had to keep a check on Maggio’s runs. Both managers had the cards in their pockets and they played those cards right from the beginning.
Peluso, a defensive wingback, started ahead of Asamoah, who tends to venture forward more frequently and leave gaps behind him. Maggio saw a lot of the ball, but was continually kept on his toes by Peluso. Though some daunting crosses did come in the direction of Cavani and Pandev, Peluso did a good job in keeping his marker quiet for most of the half. Pirlo, on the other hand, always remained marked by one of the Napoli players. Hamsik tucked in from his winger position and remained goal side of Pirlo, and when Pirlo drifted into space, either Cavani marked him or Hamsik made sure Pirlo didn’t get a pass. This battle was the most crucial elsewhere as it helped Juve dominate most of the half.
Again, from the formations, Juve technically had a 3 v 3 situation at the back and Napoli had a 3 v 2 situation. So, Napoli had a spare man at the back and Juve didn’t. But everything changed on the pitch. Hamsik dropped infield and onto Pirlo, gifting a spare man for Juve and hence we were left with a crunch midfield battle with 6 players fighting for the ball. Despite a much better attacking duo in Pandev and Cavani, Napoli didn’t look much of a threat as Juve made sure all the space between the lines was cutoff. They defended deep with 5 at the back and 3 midfielders close to the defensive line, packing the center and cutting the passing lanes. This forced the home side to go aerial to find their strikers. The backline of Juve were pretty comfortable in dealing with aerial balls. The only solution for a potential goal for Napoli was to play on the break. Play they did, as Cavani had some decent chances with Hamsik being the architect of all the counters. Still Buffon was not tested.
Coming to the other side of the pitch, Juventus were playing with intent and aggression as Vidal took on Inler and Giovinco running rings around Cannavaro and Co. Vucinic had some very good chances and he should have done better to finish them off. With the wingbacks battling among themselves, it was up to the midfield players to make the difference. Gokhan Inler was particularly poor, both in his passing and positioning. This allowed Vidal to sneak into gap behind Zuniga and provide an extra man in attack. The Juve goal, came after some poor set-piece defending from the home side. Pirlo was allowed to cross the ball to the far post and Britos could have done better to prevent Chiellini from towering above him to score the goal.
Pirlo was constantly put under pressure, but Marchisio dropped back to help him get space and time on the ball. Marchisio was doing all the dirty work for his team, winning balls in midfield, breaking down counters. Cavani didn’t close down the Juve backline and made it much easier for them to find their teammates with precise passes. But the game turned its course in the final minutes of the half as Inler found enough time and space ahead of an unusually deep Juve backline and fired a thunderbolt into Buffon’s net. It took a slight deflection off Barzagli’s head though, but Inler would take that goal any day, given his low quality display till then. An isolated incident in injury time saw Cavani earn a yellow card for elbowing Chiellini and drawing criticism from Juve players.
Britos was taken off at half time after his jaw showed signs of fracture after the collision incident with Inler in the first half. Dzemaili came on for the defender. Now the shape of Napoli changed with Dzemaili tucking in beside Behrami and Inler making it a 3 man midfield. Maggio and Zuniga dropped back into fullback positions with Campangaro and Cannavaro as center-backs. Now the game became more interesting as Napoli had a 2 v 2 situation at the back. Maggio and Zuniga had to look behind very frequently to assess their positioning. The real change though was in the midfield. Napoli had 3 proper midfielders in the center and Marek Hamsik joined the force as a fourth.
A 4 v 3 situation in the midfield, and it was clearly showing signs of an open game. Napoli opted to stay deep and defend in their own half and play on the counter with fullbacks. This gave Juventus players a lot of time on the ball. Their wide players, Peluso and Liechsteiner were almost free now without any markers as Zuniga and Maggio stayed deep and narrow. Juve tried to attack from wide positions, but the tempo often got broken with the midfield dominance of Napoli. Inler was playing with more confidence and Behrami was cleaning up the pieces, occasionally dropping into defense. There were pockets of spaces all around the pitch which were exploited well by both sets of players.
Soon, Napoli found their rhythm and declared open season on Buffon’s goal. Shots kept rocketing onto the Juve goal from Hamsik and Cavani, only for the determined Buffon to parry them away safely. The extra midfield player gave Napoli the edge and this allowed them to double up the wing-backs of Juve. Maggio and Zuniga busted forward, linking up play and fired in some swerving cannons. The game became very open, possession changed hands at lightening speed and there were free-kicks, corners and yellow cards all around. In all this franticness, Napoli were still having the upper hand, with more shots on target and precise passing. Marek Hamsik was impressive with his play.
Lorenzo Insigne and Armero came on for Pandev and Inler late in the half, but none of them made a significant impact on the game. Something had to change for Conte, so he brought on Matri and Pogba for Giovinco and Vucinic. One of those subs was straight forward swap. But Pogba coming on, changed the dynamics of the game in favor of Juve. The midfield now became a 4 v 4 battle, as both managers seemed to be settled for a draw. But still both teams were looking for that late winner. Time ran its course and the scoreline was 1-1. A tight and entertaining encounter from the top 2 in SerieA this season. The match surely lived up to its reputation featuring most of the Italian National teamers.
It was a brilliant match in every sense, thoroughly entertaining, tactically sound and packed with drama. It could have seen more goals from either side, but the goalkeepers made sure that was not the case. Marrazzi were forced into changing the system to a 4-3-3, which worked in their favor, but Conte came back with his own tactical change to nullify the Napoli advantage. Marek Hamsik and Federico Peluso were the best players of the night. Both the goals were simple defensive errors, but take nothing away from the goalscorers. Goals are accompanied by errors most of the time.