Juventus headed straight back to the San Paolo stadium after quickly recovering in Turin after Sunday’s tense 1-1 draw (because who cares about carbon footprints, right?). The Bianconeri were defending a 3-1 lead coming into the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal with Lazio awaiting the winners in the final. Despite the tense buildup the game, Juventus were hoping to negotiate the last Napoli fixture of the season in positive fashion. On this occasion, the home side twice fought back from a goal down to win the game 3-2 on the evening but narrowly lost the tie 5-4 on aggregate. A lovely brace from Gonzalo Higuaín twice looked to have given Juventus a comfortable cruise on the evening, but comeback strikes by Marek Hamsik, Dries Mertens, and Lorenzo Insigne made the tie a nail-biting affair till the last second.
Juventus started the game with far more tranquility and control than they did on Sunday (despite the fast start on that occasion). There was more ball possession, better attacking passing play, and overall a far greater sense of composure to the visitors’ play. Although the always-tricky Insigne managed to threaten the Juventus backline on a few occasions, the back four held strong and Neto wasn’t called into action in the first ten minutes. That sense of calm was almost abruptly destroyed as Napoli came inches away to opening the scoreline in the 12th minute of play. Arkadiusz Milik, still struggling to regain his pre-injury form, played a delightful backheel into the path of Insigne, who then squared the ball to Callejón, free in acres of space in front of goal. The Spanish winger looked destined to bury his finish and bring some real tension to this second leg, but Neto pulled off a fantastic save to deny the Napoli player. Despite the missed chance, Napoli seemed to have gained some confidence as they started to come out of their shell and play more proactively. The game was fiercely contested though, with tackles flying in from both sides and some angry words being exchanged between both sets of players at multiple occasions.
The visitors knew that they were defending a two-goal lead from the first leg, so they weren’t entirely in a hurry to press forward as they waited for the right moment to strike.
That moment came first in the 31st minute when Napoli completely botched a routine goal kick and Tomas Rincón intercepted the pass right in front of goal but, due to a clear rush in adrenaline, skied the shot into Row Z. Then, just a minute later, Leonardo Bonucci played a cross-field ball to makeshift-winger Stefano Sturaro who controlled the ball expertly and played in Higuaín. The Argentine took a quick touch and released a brilliantly-placed ball into the bottom left corner of the goal to give Juve the lead on the night: 1-0! A much-needed goal to give Juve extra breathing space on the night and extend the aggregate lead to 4-1.
Who else but the ex-Napoli striker to do it, right?
The second half saw Napoli (as expected) begin with real fire under their bellies as they needed three goals to force to tie into extra-time. Milik unleashed a rasping drive towards Neto’s goal early in the second half, but it went narrowly wide of the target as the hosts reminded Juventus that the tie wasn’t over just yet. The equalizer came just after this courtesy of the captain Hamsik. Insigne buzzed around on the edge of the box and played in
the most irritating and utterly obnoxious prick of the evening Jose Callejón, whose cross was diverted into the path of Hamsik by Alex Sandro. The Slovakian midfielder needed no invitation to bury his effort past Neto and restore parity on the night: 1-1.
The score wouldn’t stay level for long, however: Higuaín bagged his second goal of the evening after Paulo Dybala released the speedy Juan Cuadrado on the right wing to go through on goal. The winger unselfishly squared the ball for Higuaín who was left with the simple task of side-footing the ball past Pepe Reina and restore Juventus’ lead: 2-1!
The goals were flying in with remarkable pace now as just three minutes later, Napoli levelled the scores for the second time of the evening thanks to Mertens. The substitute, who had been on the pitch for possibly a mere 10 seconds, capitalized on an utterly calamitous mistake by Neto after he allowed a simple throw-in to roll under his foot and into the path of the Belgian, who was left with the embarrassingly simple task of tapping it into an empty net: 2-2. We barely had time to breathe after this flurry of goals as the ball was in the back of the net yet again just five minutes later. Mertens and Callejón exchanged some tidy passes in the Juventus penalty area, cleverly outwitting both Bonucci and Sandro in the process, which resulted in the latter squaring the ball for the onrushing Insigne, who side-footed the ball past the helpless Neto: 2-3.
Phew. After that goal rush of four strikes in 15 minutes, the fans finally had a second to breathe and digest the utterly absorbing contest at the San Paolo. As Napoli piled on the pressure, Juventus quickly realized that a fourth goal was not on the cards and thus resorted to bunkering down and stoutly defending the aggregate lead. Napoli needed only two more goals on the night to progress to the final and, just over 20 minutes to go and the momentum on their side, that was certainly not a foreign possibility.
Neto was certainly doing the best he could to give the home side the chance to get back in the game as he slipped while clearing a ball and almost gave substitute Leonardo Pavoletti another open-goal chance to score; thankfully, the ball only went out for a goal kick! The final chance of the game came, once again, courtesy of Pavoletti after a bit of pinball in the Juventus penalty area resulted in the striker’s deflected snapshot going narrowly over the bar. That was the best Napoli could conjure in the dying moments after a fiery, emotional, and often dramatic encounter at the San Paolo: Juventus progress to the final of the Coppa Italia to face Lazio!
NETO 4.5 – One mistake was duly punished by Mertens, while he got away with another one late in the second half. Despite his massive save in the first half from Callejón’s chance, it was a night to forget for the Brazilian deputy.
SANDRO 7 – I have to say, our left back situation is really fantastic with both Sandro and Asamoah in fantastic form. The Brazilian put in another solid display and was involved in the second goal as well.
BONUCCI 6.5 – Solid throughout the game, although he was outdone for the Insigne goal.
BENATIA 6.5 – Also dealt with Milik nicely, although Insigne’s central drifts often had him and Bonucci working a little harder than they would have liked.
DANI ALVES 5.5 – I appreciate Dani, I really do, he’s an elegant passer of the ball and interprets the game quite nicely. However, there are times where he seriously runs around like a headless chicken and/or thinks he can dribble past a host of players as… a right back. He had a heated argument with Allegri towards the end of the game, who might have been telling him something similar with slightly less polite words…
KHEDIRA 6.5 – Worked hard to protect the defense from Napoli’s sustained pressure throughout the game. I’m worried about fatigue for the German, though. He’s played an awful lot of minutes lately for both club and country.
RINCÓN 6.5 – Gritty, snappy performance by the battling Venezuelan midfielder. He did basically what we expected him to do: disrupt the play, make tough tackles, and help solidify the midfield. Dunno what on earth he was doing for that chance before the first goal, though…
STURARO 7 – Fantastic touch and assist for the first goal. He basically did the same that Mandzukic does on that wing, except that Sturaro is a little bit smaller and with a slightly less creepy smile.
DYBALA 6.5 – Subdued performance today, perhaps because Hamsik was on some inexplicable personal vendetta with La Joya, intent on picking a fight at every possible occasion. Linked up well with the midfield though.
CUADRADO 7 – Excellent awareness and presence-of-mind for the assist on the second goal and generally did well in the duel with Ghoulam. Confident display by the Colombian.
HIGUAÍN 8 – Fantastic brace for the ex-Napoli man. Covered a tremendous amount of ground and truly sweated blood for the team in such an intimidating encounter.
PJANIC 6 – It wasn’t really the time for him to show off his flair, given the heated atmosphere around the game and Napoli’s attacking momentum. Picked up a yellow card as well.
BARZAGLI 6 – Defended well in his short 15-minute cameo to solidify the defense and guide the team to the finish line.
LEMINA N/A – Lovely footwork in the last seconds of the game to bamboozle a few Napoli defenders, though!
ALLEGRI 6.5 – Much, much, much better performance of the team than on Sunday’s nervy encounter. The game really would have been just fine if it weren’t for Neto’s best attempts to bring some excitement to it for the neutral. Passing moves flowed much better and the team, quite surprisingly, seemed more comfortable than on Sunday. Off to the final then!
Tactical Analysis – More of the same
Given that I’ve analyzed two other Juventus v Napoli games this season, and the tactics from both teams on this occasion was basically identical to those from the previous encounters, I will gracefully skip the tactical analysis for this match and direct you to those games if you want to read about the tactical setups (here and here).
The Darkness Within Us
In closing, I don’t really want to talk about the football because at many times tonight, the game was not about the beautiful game. The match was littered with a worrying amount of foul, unpleasant play — constant bickering, lack of gamesmanship, players looking to get into arguments at almost every encounter, and niggly little fouls. This wasn’t just the ugliest possible side of football, it was the ugly side of us as human beings. It’s remarkable to see what we’ll do to win a game of football and how much of our positive traits we’re willing to sacrifice in the process. This wasn’t just the obscenely obnoxious and unbearable Callejón, but it was also Dybala at times and Alves at other times. Besides, we all know how Stephan Lichtsteiner can be the Master of the Dark Arts himself and how Dybala rolls around far too much when he’s fouled. Nevertheless, we’re in the final, but I grow increasingly worried of how far football players are willing to go to win a game…
Remember that darkness lingers in every heart – Master Eraqus