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Gonzalo Higuain leads Juventus to season’s biggest win

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Juve struck early and held back Napoli’s potent attack to get the win at the San Paolo.

SSC Napoli v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

Friday was the first day of the biggest week of the season for Juventus. Over the next eight days, the Bianconeri will sandwich games against the two teams ahead of them in Serie A around a crunch Champions League game that will determine whether or not they move on to the knockout stage.

That string started at the seething cauldron that is the Stadio San Paolo in Naples for a huge showdown with Napoli. The league leaders had a four point gap separating them from Juve. A win for the Partenopei would push that lead to seven, a big number regardless of how much time was left in the season. A Juve win would slash the deficit to one and heap pressure on the Neapolitans as the season headed toward Christmas.

Massimiliano Allergi certainly had his fair share of drama when it came to selecting his team. For most the of the week Gonzalo Higuain was thought to be unavailable — or at least only fit for the bench — after he was stepped on by Claudio Marchisio in training and broke his hand, requiring surgery on Monday to stabilize the bone. But when Mario Mandzukic suddenly pulled up with a muscle injury in training on Thursday, Higuain stepped up his efforts to pass himself fit.

Allegri had two options: Play Higuain or use Paulo Dybala as a false nine. It came down to his pain threshold and how good his protective cast would be, but Higuain could play. Other injuries — as well as Napoli’s quality in the midfield — prompted a change in formation. Rather than the 3-4-2-1 he had used in the past two games, Allegri arranged the team in the 4-3-2-1 “Christmas tree” formation. Captain Gianluigi Buffon manned the goal, with Mattia De Sciglio, Medhi Benatia, Giorgio Chiellini, and Kwadwo Asamoah protecting him. Blaise Matuidi, Miralem Pjanic, and Sami Khedira played in midfield, with Dybala and Douglas Costa lined up in support of Higuain.

Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri had injuries of his own to deal with. An ACL injury to Faouzi Ghoulam had forced him to shift things around at the fullback position, but he got Mario Rui back to pair with Elseid Hysaj on the flanks. Raul Albiol and Kalidou Koulibaly completed the defensive line in front of Pepe Reina. Allan, Jorginho and Marek Hamsik comprised the midfield, and Jose Callejon, Dries Mertens, and Lorenzo Insigne completed the 4-3-3.

Both teams came out firing. It was only the third minute when Pjanic was mugged by Allan deep in his own territory. The Brazilian charged into the box and tried to feed Hamsik with a through ball. The Slovakian came into the game a goal away from tying Diego Maradona’s club record for goals, but he was a fraction of a second late and Allan’s ball fizzed through the box.

Less than 60 seconds later Juve forced Reina into action. Asamoah’s sloppy pass was cleaned up by Higuain, who sent Costa down the right side. He got a neat return pass, then tested the Spaniard from an acute angle. Reina managed to get down for it, but it was a statement of intent.

After a brief midfield battle, Higuain was set up again. It was another classic counterattack, this one started by a pass from Costa to Dybala. Juve’s No. 10 charged down the middle of the field from the halfway line with Costa and Higuain along with him. Costa drifted to the left, and Koulibaly drifted to track him, opening a gap for Higuain that Dybala exploited with a perfect through ball. Higuain’s first touch was perfect. Reina came out but didn’t do much to put him off. Pipita side-footed the ball past him and into the net just before Koulibaly, desperate to get back to cover, wiped him out.

1-0 Juve at San Paolo.

SSC Napoli v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

Napoli immediately pressed for an equalizer. Their job was sometimes made easier by Juventus, whose attempts to play out from the back made for some nervy moments. Miralem Pjanic was forced into a foul on 15 minutes after getting into a tight spot passing in their own half. Three minutes later Napoli had one of their best chances of the entire night when Chiellini’s long pass was intercepted by Callejon, who found Hamsik for a knuckleball of a shot that Buffon parried.

Juve’s best chance to double the lead before halftime came in the 22nd minute, when Costa powered through the middle on the counter. He was perhaps a bit late passing to Higuain, whose cross from the left was blocked. On the ensuing corner kick Benatia was set up for a volley but somehow blazed over from short range.

From that point on, it was almost all Napoli in terms of possession. Just before the half-hour Insigne went down under a challenge from De Sciglio, but referee Daniele Orsato correctly judged the Juve full-back to have gotten the ball. A minute later Mertens and Hamsik both had shots blocked. Then another rotten Chiellini giveaway set up Insigne for perhaps his best shooting chance of the night but Buffon was equal to his old Italy teammate and parried. When the defense somehow let the diminutive winger win the header on the ensuing corner Buffon punched it away before Albiol missed badly on the rebound.

Insigne had another shot five minutes later, this time a tame effort from range that Buffon smothered easily. Callejon then badly scuffed a ball, but Benatia panicked into conceding a corner when he had more time than he realized. The corner was well defended, and Allan put the second ball somewhere towards Pompeii.

SSC Napoli v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

There was a distressing sign when Khedira hit the deck a minute from the half clutching his leg below the knee. The medical cart was summoned, but eventually dismissed. The look on Khedira’s face was a familiar one — the one he gets when he knows he’s done for the day. But he got himself back on the field and carried on deep into the second half. Napoli made one last heave before the whistle, but Benatia prevented the final pass from reaching Mertens.

The beginning of the second half saw Juve press for a few minutes, and it looked like they might try to go on the attack to double their lead. But soon they dropped back to defend again.

It was a dangerous game to play against a team like Napoli, especially given the lapses Juve has been prone to at the back. They almost had one of those four minutes into the half when Hamsik got the ball all alone at the top of the box, but the ball had slipped over the touchline in the buildup and Orsato called the play back for a Napoli throw.

Quite suddenly the Juve that we have known for the last six years — the one that simply sealed off the way to goal — was back. Sarri’s flowing passing game was reduced to mostly throwing crosses into the box. The problem for Napoli was simple: Juve’s defense are massive physical mismatches for their forwards. The biggest of them is Callejon at 5-foot-10. Mertens is 5-foot-7 and Insigne 5-foot-4. The man who could possibly have changed things, Arkadiusz Milik, is out long-term with a knee injury.

Juve rarely got forward, but were prevented from scoring their second by Reina in the 68th when Matuidi got loose in the box and the Spaniard somehow managed to make a one-handed save from point-blank range when the midfielder bounced the shot in. The corner that followed was headed out to Costa, who proceeded to perform his best Charlie Brown impression by whiffing at the ball.

Napoli had only one truly dangerous chance the entire half. It came in the 73rd minute, when substitute Piotr Zielinski found Insigne in space on the wing and he fizzed the ball just wide of the post with Buffon beaten.

Two minutes later, though, Insigne was off, exacerbating a groin injury after a collision with Buffon. Mertens nearly got in in the 83rd minute but was flagged offside — barely, because Juan Cuadrado nearly played him back on.

After four minutes of stoppage time, Orsato blew his whistle, and the game was done, and Juve had their biggest win of the season.

LE PAGELLE

GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 9. A fantastic game by the captain. Made two fantastic saves in the first half that preserved the lead. His unsurpassed ability to organize the defense in front of him was on full display as the team settled in for the second half.

MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 8. Clearly had orders to stay home on defense, and he did that very well. Whether it was Insigne or Rui, he hardly let a cross get past him, and he recorded seven clearances — a stat we’ll be talking about a lot in the next few entries.

GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6.5. Immense in defense — nine clearances along with a tackle and an interception — but his attempts at long passes out of the back got Juve into trouble multiple times.

MEDHI BENATIA - 7.5. A third straight excellent game in a row. After a year-plus of constant screw-ups, this is a welcome sight. Cleared the ball 11 times but made a few weird decisions in possession.

KWADWO ASAMOAH - 8. One of his best games in years. He locked down the left flank and was especially effective at keeping Callejon from making one of those cutting runs in from the flank that have seen him score against Juve so many times.

BLAISE MATUIDI - 6.5. Did well to seal off midfield. Robbed of a goal in the second half by Reina.

MIRALEM PJANIC - 6. Did well to clog passing lanes in the middle, to the tune of four interceptions. But he made few rough passes early and was lucky that Napoli didn’t score when he was dispossessed in the game’s opening minutes.

SAMI KHEDIRA - 6. Did the same job that the rest of the midfielders did in forcing Napoli’s play out wide. His condition will be worth monitoring after he pushed through what looked like a bad injury suffered at the end of the first half.

PAULO DYBALA - 7. Fantastic through ball for his assist and always dangerous on the counter. Sacrificed and worked hard for defense, even making a pair of tackles.

DOUGLAS COSTA - 7. The decoy run he went on in the run up to the goal was excellent — he made all the space Higuain needed. Always dangerous whenever Juve went forward.

GONZALO HIGUAIN - 8. Five games against Napoli for Juve, five goals. He took this one with incredible calm, especially considering the fact that he was about to get trucked by Koulibaly. Made a pair of interceptions and even had a pair of clearances. On a day where scoring chances were limited by tactics, he was clinical.

SUBS

CLAUDIO MARCHISIO - 7. Came on for Khedira and defended very well. Made two good interventions in stoppage time as the game was played out.

JUAN CUADRADO - NR. Not sure why he was put on here. Nearly played Mertens onside late, but also made a good interception and defensive header in stoppage time.

ANDREA BARZAGLI - NR. Surprised he didn’t come on earlier, but added solidity to the defense at the end.

MANAGER ANALYSIS

Allegri has been making some tactical adjustments of late, and it looks like this 4-3-2-1 formation might start turning into the best option. It allows Dybala to support Higuain with the freedom to roam to the wings or stay central, and the three-man midfield adds a little more stability that the double pivot of the 4-2-3-1 hasn’t provided this season.

It’s worth pressing on with this formation to see whether or not it will work long-term. It will mean a little more competition for attacking places, but if this system turns out to be the best fit for this team then it needs to be employed.

In terms of player selection, Douglas Costa is proving himself to be unbenchable right now. His pace and skill gives defenders fits, and, as we saw on the goal, he’s starting to draw more attention from defenders. If he draws people out of position, that’s that much more room for Higuain and Dybala to operate. Cuadrado and Federico Bernardeschi will have their work cut out for them to displace him.

LOOKING AHEAD

Crunch week continues on Tuesday when Juve travels to Greece to face Olympiacos. The Bianconeri control their own destiny to qualify for the knockout round, but they don’t necessarily have to win to get through — although you don’t want to leave things to other results.

For the record, here are the scenarios that would put Juve through:

  1. Juventus defeats Olympiacos.
  2. Juventus fail to defeat Olympiacos AND Sporting fail to defeat Barcelona.

Even with group winners Barca likely resting players, it is difficult to see Sporting coming away with three points at the Camp Nou. That said, it’s better to take care of business on your own.

After that, the next big domestic test is the year’s first Derby d’Italia at the Allianz Stadium. Depending on Inter’s result on Saturday, Juve could find themselves playing the league leader twice in two weeks. But after a confidence boost like this—it was the first time Juventus have kept a clean sheet in Naples in 20 years—it’s easy to see a scenario where Juve starts picking up steam now.

If they do, everyone in their path should start getting nervous.