For the past couple of weeks, we've been talking about the decisive week that will play a key role in Juventus' season. It's been sitting there in the back of our heads while trying to concentrate on the immediate future to the best of our ability. But that's obviously tough — especially knowing how big a clash like this could possibly be to bringing another Scudetto back to Turin.
Finally, that week is here.
Juventus vs. Napoli. Serie A's top side against Italy's No. 2 team. A chance to put serious distance between the rest of the competition or re-open a Scudetto race with 11 games left in the season. It's pretty easy to figure out which objective will be gunning for when they take the San Paolo pitch on tomorrow night.
Who does this match mean more to? I really don't know. The rewards are as clear as day for each respective club, as are the consequences for whichever team happens to suffer a potential loss.
In the grand scheme of things, going up nine points won't completely end things in Serie A. But you gotta admit, if Juventus do claim all three points on Friday night, things will be looking awfully good when it comes to winning a second straight Scudetto.
That's the glass half full approach. And it's not like there's any reason not to be at this point in time.
Why be so optimistic?
Because we root for Juventus, for one. And it's not like Juve are playing piss-poor like they were, say, a month or so ago. Getting back to winning after the suckfest known as the 1-0 loss to Roma two weekends ago was important, only for the fact that it got everybody's head right again.
Now, as we hit the biggest week of the season to date, what a better thing to do than to keep the train rollin'.
In the month of February, Napoli has won exactly one game (a 2-0 victory over Catania). Since that win at the Stadio San Paolo, Napoli have gone on to be shutout four times and scored just one — yes, one — goal since that win at home. And to make matters worse for the Azzurri, Edinson Cavanni hasn't scored since Napoli's 2-1 win over Parma on Jan. 27. That was five weeks ago. Not exactly Cavani-like, is it?
All of this could be that Napoli are starting to really hit a wall. Or it could just mean that Juventus will be getting a sleeping giant on Friday night.
Nicolas Anelka is a doubt after missing practice on Wednesday with back problems. We're doomed. Might as well cancel the game and stay in Turin for the weekend.
Okay, meaningful injury news...
Also missing practice on Wednesday was Martin Caceres because of the same kind of back pain. Or at least that's what we know for now. If there is any kind of chance that Giorgio Chiellini can't play (don't read ahead tomorrow night), then whether his top replacement is available is up in the air right now — which wouldn't exactly have some of us thinking happy thoughts going into one hell of an important game.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
1. Will Giorgio Chiellini get his first start in months? If Sunday against Siena was the test drive, then might Friday night against Napoli be when Conte releases Giorgio of the Jungle out in the wild again? With Caceres' sudden injury concerns, Chiellini's status becomes even that much more important. Let's be honest, how confident would we feel if Federico Peluso is starting against Napoli? If Chiellini is healthy, he should play. But if there's any doubt, I have a hunch Antonio Conte will play it safe. Who knows, though. I've been wrong in the past.
2. How Leonardo Bonucci handles the San Paolo atmosphere. Remember the last time Juventus visited Naples? While it was one of the best and most exciting games we've seen of the Conte Era, it wasn't a memorable one for Juve's then-24-year-old central defender. He didn't handle the atmosphere well at all. And on the field, he might have done even worse. While he has made tremendous progress the past two seasons under Conte, Bonucci having a good game will play a huge role in whether or not Juve are able to claim all three points.
3. Whether or not Big Game Mirko gets off the bus. If Bonucci is key for the defense, then the same — if not more — importance should be placed on Mirko Vucinic when it comes to Juventus' attack. In the past few weeks, Vucinic has been very hot and cold. He was very productive against Siena last weekend, but barely showed up when Juve lost to Roma. This is the kind of game where Vucinic's reputation would make you think that he's going to play a key role in the final outcome. Whether or not that actually happens is obviously still to be determined.
4. Keeping Cavani at bay. Even when he hasn't scored in over a month, Cavani scares the crap out of me. I'm probably not the only person who thinks along those lines. I mean, it's Edinson Cavani. Even going without a goal for over a month, Cavani is still joint-top scorer in Serie A with 18 goals (39 percent of Napoli's production this season). Stop Cavani, stop Napoli? Hey, it's worth a shot.
5. Wing-backs vs. wing-backs. The last time Juventus and Napoli played, Kwadwo Asamoah was a monster who could not be contained. Obviously he's not playing up to that level since he returned from AFCON duty, but that doesn't mean he can't get back there. And for Stephan Lichtsteiner, who has been just rock solid this season, it's basically keep the good performances going. They'll have put in good showings if Juve want to win the battle on the wings, a place that Napoli loves to use in their counter-attacking way of going about things.
My starting XI (3-5-2): Buffon; Barzagli, Bonucci, Caceres/Chiellini; Lichtsteiner, Vidal, Pirlo, Marchisio, Asamoah; Vucinic, Matri
OFFICIAL KICKOFF TIME: 8:45 P.M. IN ITALY; 2:45 P.M. ON THE EAST COAST; 11:45 A.M. ON THE WEST COAST