Until Sunday, Napoli had never so much as drawn at the Allianz Stadium. Whether it was Walter Mazzari, Rafael Benitez or Maurizio Sarri that led them, Juventus’ football palace had for six years been the Partenopei’s kryptonite.
That fear factor is gone now, along with all but a single, precious point of the lead atop Serie A that five days ago stood at six points.
Juventus ended a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week with an uninspired performance on their home ground. For the first time since the stadium opened in 2011, they failed to register a shot on target, and Kalidou Koulibaly’s header in the 89th-minute saw Juventus fall to a 1-0 defeat against Napoli.
There was all sorts of speculation surrounding Massimiliano Allegri’s lineup in the lead-up to the game. The main question was whether Paulo Dybala, who has looked uninspired for the better part of the last month, would be playing from the start or if he’d be dropped to the bench. Allegri’s final decision was to play him, alongside Gonazlo Higuain and Douglas Costa in a trident attack that worked more like a 4-3-2-1 than a 4-3-3. Gianluigi Buffon manned the goal behind Benedickt Howedes, Medhi Benatia, Giorgio Chiellini, and Kwadwo Asamoah. The midfield was formed by the traditional trio of Blaise Matuidi, Miralem Pjanic, and Sami Khedira.
Sarri is famous for not deviating his starting XI unless someone can’t walk, and he didn’t buck his trend this time. Pepe Reina started in goal, with Elseid Hysaj, Raul Albiol, Koulibaly, and Mairo Rui screening him. Marek Hamsik, Jorginho, and Allan manned the middle of the park, with Jose Callejon and Lorenzo Insigne bookending false nine Dries Mertens.
It took all of 45 seconds or so for Napoli to manufacture their first chance, when Hamsik broke down the left side and squared the ball into the box for Insigne, but the Italy international had Chiellini all over him and only managed to get his shin to it, skewing it wide.
It was quickly apparent that Allegri was going into this game with the same mindset that he applied so successfully in Naples in December. In that game, Allegri ceded possession and clogged the middle of the field, forcing Napoli to put the ball on the wings and send in crosses, using the height advantage they had over their forwards to completely lock down the penalty area and then hit on the counter.
That might have worked, but fate put a monkey wrench into the plan. In the sixth minute, Chiellini was moving toward a simple pass from a teammate in the penalty area when he pulled up, the first outward sign of an injury to his knee he must have suffered in that first challenge with Insigne. The attackers jumped on the loose ball and Khedira moved to clean things up defensively, but the bigger concern was the Juve co-captain. He was attended by trainers and tried to get back on the field, but he obviously couldn’t run, and a minute later he made a bad pass that triggered a counterattack that saw two Juventus players booked, Asamoah for a foul in the buildup and Benatia for bringing down Mertens. In front of the box. The free kick was just outside the box and right of center, and Rui fired the ball over. Before Buffon took the goal kick, Chiellini gave in to the inevitable. Stephan Lichtsteiner came into the game, with Howedes kicking inside to play center-back.
Juve started to get themselves into the game shortly thereafter. Asamoah received an excellent diagonal ball and fed Higuain, whose dangerous cross was nodded away by Rui for a corner. The delivery found Howedes on the back post, but he didn’t have quite enough room to direct it. Three minutes later Albiol was booked for scything Higuain down at the top left corner of the box, and Pjanic came as close as anyone in the first half to scoring with his free kick, which took a wicked deflection off Callejon but bounced off the far post. The ensuing corner saw Higuain tomahawk the ball toward the far post on the bounce that was headed away from goal for yet another corner.
After about the 20th minute things began swinging back the other way. Mertens had a tame shot off a Lichtsteiner giveaway that went right at Buffon, then Super Gigi punched a cross/shot from Rui over the bar. Moments later Hamsik had a turn, but the Napoli captain dragged his shot wide of the post from an acute angle, then had a cross denied by a sliding Benatia.
By this point Juve was having serious issues keeping possession. In the 28th minute Howedes outmuscled Mertens in the middle of the park only to give the ball away with his next touch. After Koulibaly kept Dybala away from a ball on the right wing Higuain managed to retain possession, but Costa went down far too easily and Napoli took the ball the other way.
The game’s obvious importance led to some frayed tempers. Costa had taken an inadvertent blow to the face as he lost the ball, and referee Gianluca Rocchi — who can be an X-factor in most games but was surprisingly good in this match — stopped play to give him a moment to recover. When play resumed, Insigne took issue with the exact manner in which Khedira returned possession to Napoli and shoved him, causing a fracas that took a few moments for Rocchi and his assistants to get under control, although no cards were shown to either side.
Napoli continued piling on pressure, and in the 38th minute had the ball in the net when Insigne latched on to a ball through the channel and dinked it over Buffon, but the winger hadn’t held his run and was correctly ruled offside.
As the teams went into the half, one had to wonder what Allegri had up his sleeve. His second-half changes are often the decisive moments of games, and he surprised some when he used one of the two he had left immediately at halftime, replacing Dybala with Juan Cuadrado.
Unfortunately, the initial stages of the second half played out much the same as the majority of the first. Hamsik had another chance with a channel run in the 52nd minute but hit the side netting. Juve then managed to get the ball down the field and worked it to Cuadrado, who had space to shoot in the right-hand channel but instead, chose to do a few step-overs, and when he finally did deign to shoot Koulibaly had closed him down and blocked it.
On the hour Sarri went to his bench, playing a card that he didn’t have in his hand in December by introducing Arkadiusz Milik for Mertens. After another 10 minutes of one-way traffic Allegri countered with muscle of his own, replacing Costa with Mario Mandzukic.
In the 73rd minute the offside flag again went up on a Napoli winger, although this time Buffon had gotten down to save Callejon’s shot. Four minutes later Higuain tried to one-touch a back-heel to a runner he expected to be there—except no one was. The resultant counterattack was dealt with when Benatia interdicted a one-two between Insigne and Milik.
With 10 minutes left Juve had a set piece opportunity from the left side, but Pjanic’s decent back-post delivery was defended well. After Millik blasted over from a great distance, Pjanic got another chance to deliver a ball in. This one sailed over everyone’s head, but that may have been in part because Koulibaly was holding Higuain down as he jumped for it. Rocchi didn’t give it, and frankly it’s one of those things that’s against the letter of the law but never ends up getting called.
Needing the win to keep the pressure up, Napoli began going for broke and forced several saves out of Buffon in the last seven minutes of the game, including one from substitute Pitor Zielinski in the 83rd minute. Cuadrado tried to get hold of a cross from Mandzukic for one of those patented right-wing headers of his, but the ball just wasn’t in the right position. Then Jorginho picked out Insigne with a long ball on the left, and the winger’s cross eluded Callejon before being tipped around the post by Buffon.
The Spaniard went to take the corner, and you know the rest. Koulibaly waltzed past Benatia, who after a pretty good game chose a 90th-minute corner kick to get caught ball-watching. Buffon had absolutely no chance as he powered his header into the net, cutting Juve’s lead to one point and setting up a grandstand finish for the title over the next month.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 7. Were it not for him Juve would’ve been behind far earlier, and the story wouldn’t have been Napoli winning at the death, but Napoli running Juventus out of their own building. Did well to organize a defense that became patchwork early.
BENEDIKT HOWEDES - 6. Tied for the team lead with four clearances. It was a big ask having him move inside after Chiellini’s injury — he had never played center-back in a four-man defense as a Juventus player — but handled himself well for the most part, although he did make a few rough giveaways.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - NR. Boy, was he missed in the middle of defense as the game wore on — and his injury, a hyper-extended knee, may keep him out the rest of the season. Would he have been marking Koulibaly at the end?
MEDHI BENATIA - 4. He didn’t have a particularly bad game, but he loses multiple points for his pathetic failure on Napoli’s goal. He’s now been caught ball-watching on a decisive goal twice in the last five days.
KWADWO ASAMOAH - 4. Did little to support whatever attack was mustered down the left side and was constantly chasing after Callejon on his side of the field.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 4. Abjectly awful going forward, and wasn’t his usual self regaining possession, either.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 5.5. Gets credit for his defensive effort, leading the team with three tackles and five interceptions. But he was signed to make the passes that unlocked the opposing defense, and he simply wasn’t able to do anything to dictate the tempo.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 4.5. Largely invisible. Decent in defense, but only attempted 19 passes.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 5. His form is starting to come down to earth, which I think is a function of fatigue more than anything else. First touch often let him down.
PAULO DYBALA - 4. Dribbled the ball out of his own half a few times, but did nothing to menace Reina’s goal. You can tell by his body language when he’s confident in himself, and he absolutely isn’t right now.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 5. Ran hard but didn’t manage to get himself into position to do receive whatever scant service he did get.
STEPHAN LICHTSTEINER - 4.5. Gave the ball away in some really weird ways and had some problems with Insigne after coming on.
JUAN CUADRADO - 4.5. One of those days where you wonder what was going on in his brain. That chance in the channel was the best position Juve had gotten into from open play all night and he frittered it away doing dance moves instead of acting.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 5.5. Spent most of his time trying to set things up on the left instead of menacing the penalty area, but you have to play the ball where it is. Had a couple of good ideas but couldn’t quite see them through.
As we said earlier. Allegri clearly wanted to do exactly what he did at the San Paolo in December when he won 1-0. It almost worked — at least from the defensive perspective. If Juve had been a little more sharp on the counter we could be talking about a very different game. Changing the match was also made more difficult when he lost a substitution early.
One quibble I might have was Mandzukic starting on the bench. With Napoli’s general lack of verticality, putting him on the left wing would have allowed him to abuse Hysaj in the air much the same way he did to Dani Carvajal in Madrid two weeks ago. Given how Juve played on Sunday, it would be debatable whether he would have gotten much in the way of service, but he certainly would’ve had a better chance than Higuain against Albiol and Koulibaly, Napoli’s only tall players.
The sliver lining in all this is that Juventus still control their own destiny. The lead is a razor-thin one point, but a lead it remains, and if Juve win out the seventh consecutive scudetto is theirs. Juve also has a healthy lead in goal difference, which would be the tiebreaker between the two given the three head-to-head tiebreakers are all dead even.
That said, Juve has by far the more difficult run-in, with road games against Inter and Roma coming up, plus the Coppa Italia final on May 9. Those are difficult, but they’re not impossible. Inter has been hot and cold all season and needed an excellent performance by Samir Handanovic to keep their match against Chievo earlier Sunday from being an early laugher before winning 2-1. Roma will be coming off their Champions League semifinal against Liverpool, so one wonders how much energy they’ll have as that game approaches.
Saturday’s Derby d’Italia will be the first game Juventus has had a full week of rest for in almost a month. The overwhelming impression I get from this team is that they’re gassed. That rest will help. A lot.
Now it’s time to protect the house.