The Juventus-Napoli rivalry has been one that has only seemed to take a step up in intensity over the last five or 10 years. Ever since both teams came back into Serie A in the same year, they have only seemed to despise each other that much more. And as Napoli has become one of the top contenders to try and dethrone Juventus from the Serie A mountain top over the last few seasons, that red-hot rivalry has added a couple more layers to it.
The day of July 20, 2016, only took that up another level or two.
Yes, even more than before. It’s true, it’s certainly true.
And guess who’s coming back to the San Paolo this weekend?
For the first time ever since he moved to Serie A, Gonzalo Higuain is going to be a visiting player. And, because of how the schedule has played out, he will be a visiting player at the San Paolo twice within a four-day period as Juventus also plays out the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal tie against Napoli. But first, there’s the matter of Juventus heading to Naples for their second league meeting of the season with Napoli. And, as a result of that, Higuain’s first official game as a Juventus player facing his former team at the place where he used to be
The reception will be a tad bit different this time.
Higuain’s return to Naples has and will continue to dominate the talk in the Italian press until the ball is kicked off at the San Paolo. That’s only natural. You see what he accomplished at Napoli since arriving from Real Madrid, you see what he did in his final season with the club and how he established himself as one of the best strikers in the world in the process, you see him then sign with the arch-rival that just so happens to be the dominant side in the league and there’s reason why emotions will be running a little higher than usual come Sunday night.
This is one hell of a way to come out of the international break and begin an incredibly important month where Juve’s going to once again be playing games on all three fronts within the next couple of weeks. It just so happens that Juventus will be playing Napoli on two of those fronts, while facing a little squad called FC Barcelona in the Champions League in a little over a week and a half.
You have Juventus vs. Napoli. You have the former star of Napoli coming back to town for the first time as a Juventus player. You have a top-three battle between two teams who absolutely despise one another. This isn’t just another weekend in Serie A where Juve are the overwhelming favorite over a club that is in the bottom half of the table. Nope, Juventus is facing one of its biggest domestic rivals — and then facing them again three days later.
What fun there could be at the San Paolo. But only if Juventus wins, of course.
Juventus — 73 points
Napoli — 63 points.
My math tells me Juventus is up 10 points over Napoli. Good news!
I won’t dwell on the Marko Pjaca ACL news because I’m already sad about it. There’s no reason to be even more sad than we already are.
The San Paolo has been, well, an interesting place to play at over the last few years, to say the least. Juventus’ last six trips to the San Paolo has gone as followed: One win, two draws and three losses. That’s not exactly what you would call dominant or even the kind of success we’ve seen Juventus have against just about everybody else in Serie A over the last five years.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
1. Gonzalo Higuain playing against his former club at the San Paolo for the first time.
Yeah, sorry, but this is the storyline going into a matchup of Serie A’s first- and third-place teams playing one another. That’s just reality, folks. There’s no way to avoid it.
Higuain enters this game having struggled to find the back of the net in recent weeks. It’s something that we haven’t exactly seen a lot of from the €90 million man either this season or in his last couple of seasons with Napoli. As we talked about late last week, Higuain has played a lot of minutes since Max Allegri went to the 4-2-3-1 and has barely had a rest since the middle of January. He did have the chance to come back early from international duty — and took advantage of it — which will hopefully give him the slightest bit of a chance to re-charge his batteries. Knowing what the schedule is like and the important fixtures that stand in front of Juve over the next month, the opportunity to give Higuain complete games off might not be all that frequent in the coming weeks.
I just have a hunch that, a lot like the first time he faced Napoli this season back in late-October, that Higuain will play a massive role in the final score. Or maybe that gut feeling is just me needing to have some lunch. We’ll see which one it is in short order.
2. Paulo Dybala’s health and effectiveness.
With one Argentine, you are bound to have the other. It’s only natural. You can’t talk about any kind of HD tandem impact without one of the halves missing.
While Higuain might be struggling to find the back of the net in the last handful of games, the big thing when it comes to Dybala is simply his health. The last time we saw him playing in a game for Juventus he was slumped over on the Marassi turf signaling for a sub and having to be replaced by Marko Pjaca in the 1-0 win over Sampdoria. Since then, we’ve wondered a few things about Dybala — why on earth he went on international duty if he wasn’t 100 percent, if the day-to-day diagnosis that Argentina’s doctors told us about is actually a day-to-day diagnosis, what kind of shape is he going to return in after going halfway around the world if he isn’t completely healthy. I can’t help it. This is Dybala’s health we’re talking about here.
A lot of Italian media outlets are predicting that Dybala starts on the bench on Sunday night. Whether they’re being swayed by Dybala’s health status or that he has been training away from the rest of the team since returning from international duty a few days. I understand Allegri wanting to be safe with Dybala. This is the start of the most important stretch of the season. I also understand why he will play. This is a rather important game.
3. Who’s the odd man out in the center of the midfield? (If there needs to be...)
At this point, it seems as though there will be two major decisions Allegri will have to make. First, that’s if Dybala is healthy enough to play. Secondly, if Mandzukic is healthy enough to play.
The moves if each of those guys are unable to play seem pretty clear. If Dybala can’t go, birthday boy Miralem Pjanic will slide up from his double pivot role and into the trequartista spot with Claudio Marchisio playing alongside Sami Khedira. If Mandzukic can’t go, then Alex Sandro will play as a left winger and Kwadwo Asamoah will come into the starting lineup as a left back.
Seems simple enough, right?
Allegri said that the potential absences won’t change how he lines things up, which means the 4-2-3-1 formation is going to be used no matter who’s available. (Both Dybala and Mandzukic have been called up, by the way.) Maybe it’s a complete smokescreen and Mad Max being Mad Max when it comes to talking to the media sometimes. For all we know Allegri might start both Dybala and Mandzukic and nothing will be wrong. Or maybe he’s thinking of going with a 3-4-1-2 and we’re all going to be wondering where the hell that kind of starting lineup came from. Either way, the starting lineup will be interesting to see — and not just because it’s an important game at the San Paolo on Sunday night.
MY STARTING LINEUP
Juventus XI (4-2-3-1): Gianluigi Buffon; Stephan Lichtsteiner, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, Alex Sandro; Sami Khedira, Miralem Pjanic; Juan Cuadrado, Paulo Dybala, Mario Mandzukic; Gonzalo Higuain
Location: Stadio San Paolo, Naples, Italy
Kick-off time: 8:45 p.m. local time in Italy; 7:45 p.m. in the United Kingdom; 2:45 p.m. on the East Coast; 11:45 p.m. on the West Coast
TV: RAI International (United States); RAI International (Canada); BT Sport 1 (United Kingdom); Sky Calcio 1, Sky Supercalcio HD, Sky Sport 1 HD Italia, PremiumSport HD (Italy)
Online: fuboTV, beIN SPORTS CONNECT U.S.A. (United States); beIN SPORTS CONNECT Canada (Canada); BT Sport Live Streaming (United Kingdom); SKY Go Italia (Italy)
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