Remember the lead-up to last year’s home game between Juventus and Napoli last October? When three Napoli players tested positive for COVID-19 and a last-second quarantine order was issued by the local health authority (ASL) in Naples, and Juve and the referees went through the pregame motions before waiting 45 minutes and declaring the game abandoned? And then Napoli appealed their 3-0 forfeit and won, leading to the game being rescheduled late in the year?
Somehow, this year is way more ridiculous than that.
Even if COVID weren’t a thing, Napoli would be coming into this game badly shorthanded. Their best defender, Kalidou Koulibaly, one of their better midfielders, Andre-Frank Anguissa, and their star striker, Victor Osimhen, were all going to be at the Africa Cup of Nations. Osimhen would have likely missed out after having his face broken — no, that’s not hyperbole — against Inter Milan at the end of November.
But when you add in COVID, it takes things to a staggering new level. At current, there are five active positives in Napoli’s squad: Alex Meret, Kevin Malcuit, Hirving Lozano, Mario Rui, and, absurdly, Osimhen, who couldn’t have more weird availability issues if he tried. Added to that list is first-year manager Luciano Spalletti. There was serious question as to whether the Naples ASLs (there are two of them due to the city’s size) would allow the team to travel.
Surprisingly, they were given the go-ahead, but combined with run-of-the-mill injuries and the AFCON absences, Napoli’s squad was pretty skint:
Oh, but if you think the thread of this tapestry of intrigue isn’t tangled enough, it gets better. Napoli had been granted permission to travel by Naples’ ASL-1. After the team had already landed in Turin, the ASL-2 announced that, in fact, three of the players who had just flown north — Stanislav Lobotka, Piotr Zielinski, and Amir Rrahmani — should have been in quarantine and not allowed to travel at all. Now there are legitimate questions as to whether or not new government regulations concerning quarantines would require some or all of Napoli’s remaining players to play the game wearing masks.
This is all part of a wider farce being played out across the league. In sum, people with authority are insisting that their authority has more authority than other peoples’ authority. Four teams have been ordered into quarantine by various ASLs, but the Lega Serie A has adamantly refused to postpone those fixtures. Despite the fact that it is written into the COVID protocols that the ASLs have the authority to override the league, they insist that their protocol — that games will go ahead so long as teams have 13 players including at least one goalkeeper — is the one in effect.
And it remains to be seen what the league might do if the Turin ASL — who placed Torino into quarantine earlier in the day Wednesday, preventing them from traveling to Bergamo to play Atalanta — decides to take some sort of action regarding this game. The director of the board didn’t rule that out earlier this week.
It is, to quote the title character of Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox, a total clustercuss.
So what will all this mean if the game is played?
It means that, for Juventus, it goes from a game they must win to a game they have no excuse not to.
As opposed to Napoli, Juve has largely escaped the large-scale COVID outbreak that has flown through the league as a result of the omicron variant. Only three players have tested positive since the return from the holiday break — Carlo Pinsoglio, Arthur, and Giorgio Chiellini. Wonderful as he is as a human being, Pinso isn’t a huge loss from a sporting standpoint, while Arthur has since received a negative test and could be available — and even then he’s anything but a first line player at this point. The loss of Chiellini is a bit more problematic, because Leonardo Bonucci suddenly developed a muscle problem over the last few days of training, meaning that Daniele Rugani will likely be pressed into duty in defense alongside Matthijs de Ligt.
That could present a problem, considering the fact that the forward line is the one place where Napoli still pose a threat, with the likes of Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens, Matteo Politano, and Andrea Petagna still available to play. Insigne himself just recovered from a bout of COVID and may not be 100 percent fit, but he can present a threat when he is on the field in what could be his last game against Juventus.
But Juve could cover for that problem by simply smothering Napoli in the other areas of the pitch. Without Rrahmani, Juan Jesus is the only nominal center-back the Partenopei have available, while Zielinski was their most important remaining midfielder. Napoli could end up forcing multiple youth players into the lineup. That would be difficult facing the Juventus team that went into the Christmas break, but now Juve will be getting Federico Chiesa and Paulo Dybala back. All with a bare minimum of subs available. This will be a huge order for Napoli.
If this game does go on, Juventus should simply overwhelm Napoli by sheer force of numbers. If they play on Thursday and don’t win, it’s indicative of a serious problem.
- Juventus still have two players out due to COVID-19: Chiellini and Pinsoglio.
- Additionally, Danilo is not quite ready to return from his long-term injury, but is expected back next week.
- Bonucci has been ruled out until at least the Supercoppa with muscle fatigue in his thigh.
- Luca Pellegrini and Kaio Jorge are unavailable due to non-COVID illnesses.
- As mentioned before, Dybala and Chiesa are back from their respective injuries. In his pre-match press conference, Massimiliano Allegri stated that Chiesa is training very well but suggested that the two will be on a pitch count to work themselves back from those injuries.
- Allegri stated that Manuel Locatelli will start in midfield and that two of the trio of Weston McKennie, Adrien Rabiot, and Rodrigo Bentancur will join him, suggesting that a 4-3-3 formation will be in the offing.
- Allegri also unequivocally that Alvaro Morata will remain with the team until the end of the season, throwing water on the rumors of his midseason move to Barcelona and suggesting he will be available, if not starting.
JUVENTUS PLAYER TO WATCH
Federico Chiesa hasn’t played since Nov. 27, when he pulled a muscle right at halftime of Juve’s 1-0 loss to Atalanta. The team has badly missed him ever since.
Chiesa’s dynamism is a key part of their attack. While he’d been enduring a rough start to the year, with only three goals and one assist in all competitions, he was starting to click into gear before his injury, as Allegri finally abandoned his ill-advised attempt to turn him into a striker and played him out wide where he belongs. He raked Lazio over the coals the week before he was hurt, and utterly dominated Zenit St. Petersburg a few weeks before that. Maybe it was a product of fatigue after a busy summer at the Euros, but Chiesa was finally starting to get into gear.
Chiesa’s forced rest may have finally given him the break his body needed after his busy summer, and with Allegri seeming to have finally moved on from the underwhelming 4-4-2 he started the year with and into more dynamic setups, Chiesa returns feeling very much like a coiled spring ready to release its energy. Napoli will be critically depleted in the back if the game is played, and if Chiesa can get deep into the game he’ll be able to run at some really tired legs.
The 24-year-old could return with quite the bang if the game kicks off as scheduled.
When: Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022.
When: Allianz Stadium, Turin, 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: CBS Sports Network (United States); TLN (Canada); BT Sport 1 (United Kingdom).
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.