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Juventus vs. Napoli Preview: Round 31 — Southern Hospitality

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Valerio Pennicino

In a world where a league's first- and third-place teams face one another, there would be a whooole lot of talk going on throughout the buildup. There's still been talk because of which two teams are playing on the Stadio San Paolo field Sunday night. It's impossible not to talk about Juventus vs. Napoli when we're just a mere 24 hours away from kickoff of the first vs. third showdown in Naples.

But is there as much buzz about this Juventus-Napoli match compared to when they played in Turin? Nah, not even close. That's just what happens when there's 20 points separating the two teams.

Napoli hosting Juventus is still a big game. With two talented squads and a rivalry the seems to be getting bigger by the year, it's always going to be a big game. Each team has their respective things to play for right now — Juventus with a third straight Scudetto in the not-so-distant future and Napoli with Fiorentina breathing down their neck for third place in Serie A.

The San Paolo will be packed because Juventus brings out the biggest of crowds pretty much no matter where they go. But this one is just a little bit more special than the other visitors to Napoli's stadio. There will be noise, a whole lot of it. There will be intensity from the opening whistle, a whole lot of it. That's just what comes with Juventus playing Napoli — no matter how many points separate the two teams in the standings.

Even though there is a 20-point gap between the two teams, it's still first place vs. third place. It's still Juventus vs. Napoli. It's still two rivals going against one another in what everybody else is going to be calling the game of the week.

That has to stand for something, right?

I mean, out of all the big games Juventus has played the last few years, Napoli seems to be right up there.

GOOD NEWS

Juventus is making a beeline right for the Serie A points record. With 81 points after 30 league games, getting there is more than a legit possibility. Then you throw in that they haven't lost a league game since the middle of October, things aren't all that bad, you guys.

BAD NEWS

Short-attention-span reading and writing...

  • Carlos Tévez is suspended after picking up a yellow card against Parma midweek. I think we can remember how frustrating things were the last time Carlitos wasn't part of the starting lineup.

  • Injuries. Still a bunch of injuries. No Andrea Barzagli. No Angelo Ogbonna. No Federico Peluso. That's just the names that could have possibly played a role against Napoli. There are others, of course. But who really wants to have the thought of Peluso trying to defend against somebody like Gonzalo Higuain? Yeah, no thanks on that one, chief.

  • Napoli manager Rafa Benitez decided to rest Higuain during their 4-2 victory over Catania on Wednesday night. The good news portion of this point is that Juventus isn't Catania. So there!

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

1. How the Juventus offense copes with no Carlos Tévez.

Juventus has played sans-Tévez this season. Not very often, but they've done so a few times this season. The end result was, well, not that great. But with Tévez suspended tomorrow night, this will be one of those games where we ask ourselves "No Tévez, no party?" It's a realistic concern, and not just because Tévez is coming off a first-half brace against Parma. Tévez has become so important to the Juve attack this season that the difference between him playing and not playing is becoming pretty noticeable. It's understandable because Tévez has been so good during his first year with Juve, but there will be times, like tomorrow, when he won't be on the field to carry the attack.

Well, I guess that isn't soooo bad...

2. The impact of Fernando Llorente.

Another game came and went on Wednesday night with El Rey León not making much of an impact. It's not the first time in recent weeks that Llorente has gone relatively quiet in a match. His form for three or four months was so good that it's understandable he's cooled off some. But without Tévez creating a bunch of offense this weekend, Llorente's importance will be even that much more magnified against Napoli. It doesn't necessarily mean he has to score a goal, just be the Llorente we saw when things fully clicked. But if it's the Llorente we've seen the last couple of weeks...ruh roh.

3. How Napoli defend Andrea Pirlo.

I always wonder what teams that play a 4-2-3-1 like Napoli will in all likelihood utilize will do when it comes to Pirlo. There's somebody naturally there, playing in the hole, to man-mark Pirlo from start to finish, but that isn't always the case. Take, for instance, the last time Juventus played Napoli. And then beat the crap out of them. From a certain Napoli-Juventus match review from the middle of November written by a certain Ivo Andov:

Pirlo had a great overall match. He did well to pull away from the half-assed man marking by Napoli and really orchestrated our attack throughout the game.

The biggest question is pretty easy to figure out: Will Napoli and Rafa Benitez learn from their mistake? The first time around was Pirlo doing a whole lot of Pirlo things, picking apart a Napoli side that really did give him plenty of room to operate and pull all of the strings.

4. Juventus' defense against Napoli's attack.

Talent vs. talent. Gonzalo Higuain vs. Giorgio Chiellini and so on and so on and so on. Between the three-man defense of Juventus and the Napoli attack, there's plenty of can't-miss players — and matchups — that are bound to happen. Outside of Juventus, nobody has scored more goals than Napoli's 57. Simple math tells me that's an average of a little bit less than two goals every time Napoli step onto the field against a Serie A opponent. But as we know, not every defense is as good as the one Conte will be fielding on Sunday night.

One thing is for certain: Juventus' defense isn't anything close to Catania's. Which, I might add, is definitely a good thing.

5. Paul Pogba vs. Napoli's midfield.

If it wasn't for Tévez being his usual awesome self against Parma on Wednesday, Paul Pogba would have been my pick for Juve's top player of the match. He was back to being Pogba good — explosive runs forward, slick passes, slicker moves to get around the opposition. It was more of the Pogba we saw at the beginning of the season rather than the one we had been seeing the last month or two. The rest last weekend did him plenty good, and now it's time to build off it. And luckily for us, Pogba just so happens to have a thing with scoring beautiful goals against Napoli.

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Yeah, that's quite a pretty goal.

My starting XI (3-5-2): Buffon; Caceres, Bonucci, Chiellini; Lichtsteiner, Vidal, Pirlo, Pogba, Asamoah; Llorente, Osvaldo

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