When writing previews, I tend to go back to the old line that starts out “The last time Juventus played (insert upcoming opponent here) ...” It’s convenient, but it’s also something that could very well become so damn repetitive that I would never want to settle into that kind of comfort of predictability.
With all of that being said, I wanna say this:
The last time Juventus played Napoli, it was one of the best and wildest games of the Serie A season, if not in all of Europe’s five major leagues. Juventus took a 3-0 lead, blew said 3-0 lead only to win in the dying moments of the game thanks to an own goal by one of the best defenders in Europe today. It was absolutely wild, with Juventus and Napoli pretty much setting an early-season tone that the top of the Serie A table is going to be about as wide open as its been in years. And it would be those two teams leading the way.
My how times have changed.
As Juventus has continued to hang out at the top of the table, Napoli have ... imploded. The owner of the club is yelling at everybody possible. They’ve gone into ritiro not once, but now twice, although neither of them seem to have gone all that well at all. The manager who coached Napoli in the first meeting with Juventus this season has since been sacked and taken a job at Everton. (Everton, people, Everton!) Players are reportedly screaming at each other in the dressing room. Napoli, for as much as they might have been thought of as a Scudetto contender this season, has stumbled so much over the last three months that they find themselves behind Parma, Torino and Hellas freakin’ Verona in the standings entering this weekend’s slate of games. Even relegation battlers have nearly as many wins as Napoli has recorded in Serie A this season.
The Napoli squad that Maurizio Sarri coached all of two years ago is far from the one that Rino Gattuso is now in charge of today.
And this is even after Napoli, which has lost its last three league games and not won back-to-back Serie A fixtures since September, eliminated a red-hot Lazio squad from the Coppa Italia all of a couple of days ago.
Sarri’s return to the San Paolo for the first time as Juventus’ head coach has a much, much different kind of feel as it does the first time that Juve and Napoli played one another this season. It’s not being hyped as the showdown between title contenders as it was the second weekend of the season, a direct result of the tumble down the standings that Napoli has taken over the course of the last three months. Sunday night’s trip to Naples is a big game in terms of the Scudetto race, but only for Juventus knowing that they once again will take the field knowing what Inter has already done when they take the San Paolo field.
Juventus enters the weekend four points up on Antonio Conte’s Inter, with the Nerazzurri looking about as vulnerable right now as they have all season long thanks to three of their last five Serie A fixtures ending in a draw. That has allowed Juve to build the lead they do have now, with Sarri’s squad starting to show a decent amount of progress compared to the slog we saw in November and parts of December.
Sarri: "I'm expecting a difficult game. Napoli are a strong team that even when they are in difficult moments can be deadly in a one-off game. Their league position does not represent their ability and they will be highly motivated."#NapoliJuve #ForzaJuve— JuventusFC (@juventusfcen) January 25, 2020
The vibe at the San Paolo will definitely be an interesting one. They will likely be quite angry about Sarri there with Juventus. They will be quite angry about the current state of the club (even with the recent Coppa win over Lazio). They will be quite angry just because the team Napoli is playing is Juventus.
No matter what, though, Juve will be facing a Napoli team that have had quite the eventful season to date — and not in a good kind of way, either.
- Mattia De Sciglio has not been called up for the trip to Naples, which pretty much means that some kind of move away from the club is either in the works or close to happening.
- At his pre-match press conference, Sarri downplayed pretty much any knowledge of a swap deal involving De Sciglio taking place or of the player that would come back to Juventus if the swap deal were to happen, Layvin Kurzawa.
- Emre Can has also not been called up for the Napoli game, which could very well be a transfer-related thing as well.
- RODRIGO BENTANCUR BACK (from suspension)
- Danilo is out for at least the Napoli and Fiorentina games after having to be subbed off midweek against Roma in the Coppa Italia. So much for fullback depth, eh?
- Also on the injury list: Giorgio Chiellini, Merih Demiral and Sami Khedira ... but you’ve known that for weeks now.
- Gonzalo Higuain starting against his former club “will be purely tactical,” according to Sarri at his pre-match press conference.
JUVENTUS PLAYER TO WATCH
Cristiano Ronaldo is in great form. Paulo Dybala is in great form, too.
But what about the guy who has been playing as the No. 10 behind those two guys the last couple of weeks? Well ...
Aaron Ramsey’s season to date has been a rather productive beginning, a lengthy injury absence and now a return to the field that has seen him struggle to get things going full steam again. His season has been filled more almosts than actually getting a lot of things done.
You know, almost getting the pass through to Ronaldo or Dybala.
Or almost getting enough space to getting the shot off in time before the window closed down and the defender took the ball away from him.
But, as we’ve seen in recent weeks, Sarri is keeping Ramsey in the lineup just as he did with Federico Bernardeschi earlier in the season even when the latter was really struggling to find any kind of form at all. Ramsey might fit the position a whole lot better than Bernardeschi does, but the fact that Juve’s No. 10 position still remains somewhat of a question mark outside of the rare occurrence when Dybala plays there is still rather worrying.
We know what kind of player Ramsey can be when he’s right. But we also know that the knock on Ramsey has always been the fact that he can’t stay healthy and, as we’ve seen this season, sometimes that injuries can derail some good form he may be in at the time.
Has Ramsey been a total failure thus far? No, not really.
Has Ramsey been all that great, either? No, not really.
The thing is, though, with Douglas Costa healthy and showing to be a much more dangerous threat than Ramsey is right now — and about as unique of a player as Juve has on its roster — there’s going to be competition at the trequartista spot even if Bernardeschi isn’t in the picture much these days. And one has to think that if Douglas Costa keeps playing the way he has his last few appearances and Ramsey keeps playing OK but not exactly all that great either, then Sarri could very well pull the trigger on putting the speedy Brazilian into the starting lineup once again.
(Although, for the record, now that I just spent well over 300 words talking about Aaron Ramsey, I’m fully expecting Douglas Costa to start against Napoli on Sunday.)
When: Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020
Where: Stadio San Paolo, Naples, Italy
Official kickoff time: 8:45 p.m. local time in Italy and across Europe; 7:45 p.m. in the United Kingdom; 2:45 p.m. Eastern Time; 11:45 a.m. Pacific Time
HOW TO WATCH
Television: RAI Italia North America (United States); RAI Italia North America, TLN (Canada); Premier Sports 1 (United Kingdom); Sky Calcio 1, Sky Sport Serie A, Sky Sport Uno, Sky Supercalcio HD (Italy)
Online/mobile: ESPN+ (United States); DAZN (Canada); Premier Player HD (United Kingdom); SKY Go Italia, NOW TV (Italy)
Other live viewing options can be found here, and as always, you can also follow along with us live and all the stupid things we say on Twitter. If you haven’t already, join the community on Black & White & Read All Over, and join in the discussion below.