In an early title showdown, the champion came out unscathed.
The last time S.S.C. Napoli and Juventus F.C. met in Allianz Stadium, Napoli had hoped to beat the host and opened the title race, and Juventus wanted to just stifle its opponents as it had been doing all season.
Napoli’s wished came true, but at the end of the season, the Gli Azzurri, despite tallying 91 points, could not wrestle La Vecchia Signora out of first place.
La Gazzetta dello Sport and Tuttosport both echoed that this was a game that might decide where the Scudetto goes — or stays, in Juventus’s case. Juventus, though conceding first, beat Napoli 3-1 in a matchup between Serie A’s first and second.
Juventus did not start well, and its players looked a little bit out of sync with one another. The first goal was made when Juventus’ Paulo Dybala lost possession not far outside of the box due to a sloppy and inaccurate pass from Leonardo Bonucci in an attempt to pass out from the back. Napoli’s Allan intercepted and carried the ball forward to the edge of the D-area and released to José Callejón away from Juventus defenders. Dries Mertens finished a simple tap-in after receiving a calmly crossed ball from Callejón, scoring Napoli’s first goal.
After conceding the opening goal, Juventus successfully ramped up the pressure on Napoli and swung the momentum to its side, making it difficult for the Partenopei to string a coherent attack. The pressure paid off when Mario Mandžukić leaped to head in the equalizer, leaving Napoli left-back Mário Rui watching, from an assist from Cristiano Ronaldo, who ran to the byline after right-back Elseid Hysaj failed to both clear a pass from the midfield by Emre Can and defend Ronaldo.
There had already been nervy moments for Napoli before it conceded a goal, but the failure to discern the problem and absorb the pressure was perplexing. Juventus had a few chances and causes chaos in pieces but did not convert to a change in the score line because of the final shots.
After coming out on the better side in the second half, Dybala ventured from the middle of Juventus’ half all the way to the other side and left the ball to Ronaldo, whose shot beat David Ospina but hit the post. Again, Mandžukić finished off an attack involving Ronaldo.
Rui got a second yellow card and a marching order for stepping on Dybala. Napoli’s performance improved after having a man down. Raúl Albiol found Lorenzo Insigne as Callejón steered himself clear of incoming João Cancelo and had a chance to face the goalkeeper after receiving a pass from the substitute Arkadiusz Milik.
Ronaldo could have scored himself if he, after Mandžukić had threaded a through ball between the two center-backs, had not uncharacteristically shot the ball tamely to the side of the net.
It should not be a surprise that Napoli is at its best when it could channel the “Sarrismo,” the way Napoli came from behind and defeated A.C. Milan and SS Lazio, that former head coach Maurizio Sarri instilled in the team during his three-year tenure. When facing oppositions that would not give the ball away easily and defend extremely well, such as Juventus, Napoli also faces this challenge. The problem seems not to be cracking the other team open — after all, it had a better expected-goals tally than Belgrade and the same amount of that with U.C. Sampdoria, but not knowing how to defend in adversarial circumstances, a problem inherited from Sarri’s time.
In Serie A, Juventus still seems to be far and away the favorite to retain the title, since so many of its rivals still have many problems within themselves.
There were incessant talks of Ronaldo not scoring, or not scoring enough after two goals against Frosinone Calcio last weekend, but that’s irrelevant regarding his performance.
In modern soccer, a talisman does not need to be scoring to demonstrate his usefulness anymore: one can create spaces for advancing attacking midfielders and holding up the ball instead. Ronaldo, by being the man that touched second to last in all three goals in the Juventus versus Napoli game, contributed in a meaningful way.
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