A cool Saturday evening in Torino was the stage for the biggest game of the weekend in Italy as Juventus welcomed Napoli to the Juventus Stadium. The home side, as usual, had lots of injuries to deal with, but Napoli were, crucially, missing their start signing from this summer, Arkadiusz Milik. Napoli began the game with an aggressive press spearheaded by the mobile and dynamic trio of Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens, and Jose María Callejón. This pressure worked quite well as the Bianconeri couldn’t get much of an attacking rhythm going in the opening period.
However, the first notable piece of action came courtesy of the home side. Gonzalo Higuaín, infamously playing against his former side, led a dangerous counter-attack and released a through ball to his striking partner Mario Mandzukic. Unfortunately, the pass had too much weight on it so goalkeeper Pepe Reina was able to gather the pass to stop the danger. The away side responded with a moment of danger of their own: Callejón gathered a fabulous Kalidou Koulibaly long ball on the chest, quickly swiveled, and then poked the ball into the goal past the onrushing Buffon all in one quick movement. The Napoli winger, however, was rightly flagged offside so the goal was disallowed.
The early action continued as Alex Sandro motored down the left wing and fired in a powerful, deep cross to the far post which Reina awkwardly batted away on the bounce. The loose ball fell to Stephan Lichtsteiner who, in a sudden rush of adrenaline, sent a wild shot well into Row Z.
The game dried up in terms of action but not in terms of tension as Chiellini, Sandro, and Insigne all collected yellow cards in the space of 10 minutes. For the second time in a week though, a Juventus player pulled up with a hamstring injury. This time, Giorgio Chiellini pulled up injured and was replaced, surprisingly, by Juan Cuadrado just before the half-time whistle. The last piece of action came after a sloppy Hernanes foul that gave Napoli a dangerous free kick close to goal, but the Partenopei could not capitalize on the situation. 0-0 at the break after a cagey and disjointed first half.
The second half started in complete opposite fashion to the first period. It was difficult to track the tactical game because suddenly, everything was moving at 200 km/h. The Bianconeri were the first side to benefit from this surprising breath of fresh air by scoring the opening goal. An unsuccessful corner kick was fired back into the box but Faouzi Ghoulam horribly sliced the clearance towards his own goal. Leonardo Bonucci gratefully took the unintentional assist as he rifled a cracking first-time volley past Reina to open the scoring for the hosts!
The lead, however, was very short-lived though as Napoli hit back impressively just three minutes later. Lorenzo Insigne, playing unexpectedly centrally all game, floated in a right-footed cross from a very central position towards Callejón at the far post. The Spaniard stealthily beat the offside trap by sprinting past a static Lichtsteiner and calmly side-footed the ball past Buffon. Two goals in a pulsating five minutes shocked this game into life!
There was just no end to the action (I could barely keep up with my notes) as Napoli rode the momentum of the equalizer. This time, Marek Hamsik led a dangerous 3-v-2 counter-attack but a misunderstanding between him and Callejón allowed Juventus to clear the danger after what could very well have been the second goal for the visitors. The breakneck intensity of the game was interrupted by a few niggly fouls, yellow cards, and substitutions.
We were finally able to take a deep breath and take in what had suddenly turned into an absorbing match. Soon after, Sandro laid a ball into Miralem Pjanic inside the box, but the disappointing Bosnian couldn’t quite get the touch so the Napoli defenders were able to clear the danger. That was the last piece of action for the frustrated Bosnian as Claudio Marchisio replaced him. The game was still on a knife’s edge though as both teams battled away to try find the second goal.
The moment we had all been waiting for came just a few minutes later, though.
Higuaín dropped deep to collect the ball from midfield and lofted a delicate ball into Sami Khedira, who had made an intelligent run into the space vacated by the Argentine. Ghoulam once again awkwardly cleared the ball away, but this time straight into the path of the ex-Napoli striker, who didn’t hesitate for a second in slamming a left-footed shot past a stranded Reina into the far corner!
As expected, Higuaín showed a very muted celebration against his former side, but it didn’t matter as the Juventus faithful were absolutely ecstatic.
It was now truly turning into a match worthy of the occasion as attacks continued to flow from end to end. Napoli tried to respond in the same way as to the first goal as Mertens fizzed a wicked shot narrowly wide of the upright with Buffon beaten as the time slowly ticked away for the visitors. Juventus really grew in their swagger as they confidently controlled the possession and tempo of the game and Napoli grew frustrated. They still had to remain alert though because substitute Omar El Kaddouri’s headed a Ghoulam free-kick delivery off Mandzukic’s shoulder and just inches over the bar.
There were a few more half chances for Mertens and Callejón but Juventus held on resolutely to secure an absolutely massive 2-1 victory at home against bitter rivals Napoli!
BUFFON 6.5 – Couldn’t do much for the goal. A few saves here and there to contend with.
BARZAGLI 7 – Switched to the left side of defense after the Chiellini injury. He did struggle a little when the intensity of the game went up a notch, but played well overall.
BONUCCI 7.5 – Cracking volley for the opening goal and dealt with Mertens quite well when came up against him.
CHIELLINI N/A – Here we go again with the injuries…
LICHTSTEINER 6 – I downgrade him because he sloppily played Callejón onside for the equalizer.
KHEDIRA 6.5 – He had a bit more freedom to operate because Hamsik moved forward quite a bit in attack. Played an important part in the winning goal.
PJANIC 6 – He’s another player I don’t know how to grade. Should I base it on his creative output or his overall defensive work? I don’t really know…
HERNANES 6.5 – Some sloppy tackles during the game but for the rest played well. Nevertheless, continues to divide fans’ opinions more starkly than when Moses parted the Red Sea.
SANDRO 7 – Had a fun battle against Callejón and Hysaj. Once again showed that he’s a very balanced player in the offensive and defensive departments.
HIGUAÍN 7.5 – Of course, it had to be him. Scored the all-important winning goal by intelligently dropping deep to link up with Khedira.
MANDZUKIC 6.5 – Struggled to contribute a lot to the play though especially due to Napoli’s high line, but still worked very hard.
CUADRADO 7 – A very impressive outing for the Colombian. He gave us a strong offensive outlet on the right and did his defensive work well.
MARCHISIO 7 – Calm and collected display by the returning Prince. I was worried when it all turned into an absurdly high-intensity game, but he dealt with the pressure with wonderful composure.
STURARO 6 – Provided some useful fresh legs in the final 15 minutes of the game.
ALLEGRI 7 – I criticized him against Milan for using Cuadrado in a very confused role, but this time his substitution was inspired. Opting for Cuadrado for the Chiellini substitution provided a better balance between offense and defense and the Colombian ultimately played very well. The team dealt very well with the high defensive press by Napoli as well.
Tactical corner: Can I follow you?
There were two key features to Napoli’s game: Their extremely high press and Insigne’s positioning with the ball. Let’s start with the first feature:
In addition to the high press, was the fact that Mertens didn’t really play as a false nine by dropping deep and harassing the Juventus midfielders, but instead more as a genuine nine playing up against the Juventus defenders:
In that sense, Maurizio Sarri’s men executed their defensive plan very well because it certainly disrupted Juventus’s rhythm. Here we see an extreme example of just how high up Napoli were defending, which really made sense because Juventus had no runners in behind for them to worry about:
The second feature was Insigne’s interesting positioning which actually played a key role in the equalizing goal as he was able to loft a ball from a very central position over to Callejón on the other side.
This positioning meant that Ghoulam had little protection against the impressive Cuadrado because Insigne had to shuttle from central positions offensively to wide positions defensively; perhaps this explains why the Colombian had such a strong display.
Sometimes I sure do owe the cameraman a lot of credit. This shot perfectly shows everything in one picture: Napoli’s shape (clear midfield trio of Hamsik, Allan, and Diawara), their offensive structure with Insigne playing in the trequartista space, Ghoulam playing almost as a left-winger, and Mertens playing explicitly as a striker. A false nine would have occupied the space marked by the
funny looking striped box, allowing the wingers to run in behind from wide positions but instead Insigne is (somewhat) occupying that space centrally and Mertens keeps Barzagli and Bonucci busy.
Sidenote: Funny enough, Higuaín’s goal was more resemblant of a false nine goal. He dropped deep, Khedira occupied the space created by this movement, and the Argentine was eventually untracked and unchallenged to slam the loose ball into goal.
Highway to the Danger Zone
The game was at risk of petering out into yet another stale encounter for the disgruntled Juventini watching the game, until the second life just jolted everything into life. Napoli’s high press seemed to be effective at stifling Juve’s attacking endeavors so it was invaluable that the game eventually brought excitement to the fans and, ultimately, a victory that was made all the sweeter by the manner in which it was secured. I’m still a bit concerned about Mandzukic’s form, though. With Higuaín, I can see a more defined contribution to our play with his intelligent linkup play and long balls to switch the play from side to side, but with the Croatian I’m struggling to see his unique offensive contribution to our game. Nevertheless, this win was an absolutely massive confidence boost as we go into another crunch Champions League tie and the team can now carry this fantastic momentum on to the midweek fixture, once again in front of a roaring home crowd!