For a few weeks now, our only references to Napoli had to do with how many points they are ahead of Juventus and which club they are facing that respective round. There might have been a few of those "Well, if we could get some help..." kind of thoughts, but Juventus needed the Napoli train to slow down for just one week to see the rise from relegation zone to top of the table to be completed.
That last step hasn't happened just yet. However, there's one major difference between the last couple of weeks and Saturday night's monster showdown.
There's no need for help this weekend. If Juventus are to jump ahead of Napoli in the standings, it will be by their own doing and theirs alone. That's the simple matter of it all. Napoli are coming to Juventus Stadium for a game that has been circled on the calendars for weeks now.
It's the biggest game of the Serie A season. No doubt about it. And it's in Turin where so many big games have gone Juve's way since the stadium opened its doors just about four and a half years ago. If you don't like the sound of that, then I don't know what to tell you.
JUVE NAPOLI pic.twitter.com/fxhIcwEewF— VALERIO MARINI (@MariniCartoons) February 8, 2016
Yes, even the cartoons are telling us how important this game is.
It won't be the final determining factor in who wins the Scudetto this season, but seeing as it's the only time Juventus and Napoli will play head-to-head the rest of the way, then there's just one last chance to get up on Napoli without requiring any kind of help from our buddies around Serie A.
Juventus and Napoli are two of the hottest teams in Europe right now. This isn't the kind of meeting like it was back in September when Napoli were starting to really look like title contenders and Juve were going through all of their early-season issues. No, both teams are playing as well as they have all season right now. As we've come to know, Juventus' form has been awfully good for the past three and a half months now. It looks something like this: W-W-W-W-W-W-W-W-W-W-W-W-W-W.
Not to sound like somebody voting in the 2004 United States presidential election, but another 'W' would look mighty fine in that sequence of letters. (Technically, just one letter, because Juve's good.)
.@OfficialAllegri: "Napoli are in great form and playing well. It will be a great game from a tactical and technical point of view."— JuventusFC (@juventusfcen) February 12, 2016
Because we can, let's repeat Juventus' last 14 games: W-W-W-W-W-W-W-W-W-W-W-W-W-W.
After missing the last few games due to injury, Sami Khedira is officially back after being included in the 22-man squad called up for Saturday night's showdown.
Oh, and there's the minor detail of moving into first place with a win on Saturday night. Minor, minor detail.
Here's the part of the preview where we pretty much just copy and past the bad news section from that one onto this one. That's basically to keep track of all these stupid injuries. So, this is who we know won't be playing against Napoli on Saturday night:
- Mario Mandzukic (injured)
- Martín Cáceres (injured)
- Kwadwo Asamoah (injured)
- Giorgio Chiellini (injured)
I said it for Frosinone, and I'll say it again here because it can never be said enough: This sucks. This really, really sucks.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
1. Does the loss of Chiellini mean Juventus' defense look different than usual?
In a word: Probably. Let's see what Max Allegri had to say about things during his pre-match press conference on Friday afternoon.
Yeah, I didn't expect him to say much of anything, either. It's the way of Allegri, and if you don't know that by now, maybe you should read up on the way he handles lineup discussions at press conferences.
No matter what, though, the fact that both Chiellini and Cáceres are going to be sitting in the stands Saturday night due to injury means Allegri is probably going to be forced into changing his formation. The Italian press is thinking, with the players available to him, the second-year Juve manager will go with a 4-4-2 — something that will allow Juan Cuadrado stay in the starting lineup and Stephan Lichtsteiner to play a more natural right back position. If it's 4-4-2 or 4-3-1-2, the likelihood of the 3-5-2 formation Allegri has used exclusively during Juve's rise up the Serie A table seems pretty low at this point. And while he may be playing it coy as always, you have to think that Allegri knows what he's going to go with. I doubt a manager doesn't know two days before the biggest league game of the season arrives.
2. Paulo Dybala on the big stage.
This is not to say that Dybala hasn't gotten the job done in big games during his short Juventus career or anything like that. Instead, it's more of what we already know. Napoli are going to be focusing a ton of their attention on stopping the forward who is arguably having the best season of anybody in Serie A not named Gonzalo Higuain. Cliché as it may sound, but this is the kind of game where Dybala can not only enter with plenty of people putting him under the spotlight, but then absolutely steal the show. You look at other big games Juve have had this season, and almost all of them have one singular commonality — Paulo Dybala doing pretty awesome things.
21 - Paulo Dybala is the youngest player who had a hand in 21+ goals (13 goals, 8 assists) this season over the top-5 European leagues. Star— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) February 8, 2016
Is that pretty good? Because I feel like that is pretty good.
3. How the heck is Juventus supposed to slow down Gonzalo Higuain?
As much as Dybala has great this season, Napoli's No. 9 is taking it to another level. No player in Europe has more league goals than Higuain. Not Cristiano Ronaldo, not Leo Messi, not some overhyped player in England, nobody. Higuain has started every one of Napoli's 24 league games this season and is averaging exactly one goal per game in Serie A this season. It's truly been a career season for the 28-year-old Argentine, and one that is the biggest reason why Napoli are where they are entering the second weekend of February. So what does Juventus have to do to try and stop such an in-form player like Higuain? The good thing is that Andrea Barzagli is going to be there, same goes for Leonardo Bonucci. The best way to combat great strikers is to have a really, really good defense, and Juventus certainly has the best one in Serie A.
4. Paul Pogba ... left winger?
First, I want to go back in history. It tells us that Paul Labile Pogba likes scoring cool goals against Napoli.
Now that we've got that warming our hearts again, let's get back to this change of formation talk. When we mentioned the 4-4-2, it's only logical that Cuadrado would be the right winger because that's his natural position. But Pogba ... on the left? Yeah, that's what people are saying. As much as it may not be his natural spot, I have a hunch it might not be a total all-out winger situation where Pogba is bombing up and down the left wing like he's suddenly become Alex Sandro. But it will be interesting to see what actually does happen with Pogba. It's pretty clear that, just like Juventus as a whole, he's playing his best football of the season the past month or two. And there's going to be no bigger stage — at least in Serie A, that is — than Saturday night at Juventus Stadium with the current league leaders in town for a 1 vs. 2 showdown.
My starting lineup
Juventus XI (4-4-2-ish): Gianluigi Buffon; Stephan Lichtsteiner, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, Patrice Evra; Juan Cuadrado, Stefano Sturaro, Claudio Marchisio, Paul Pogba; Paulo Dybala, Álvaro Morata
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