Stadio San Paolo, Naples
March 30th, 2014
Juventus travel to the Stadio San Paolo on Sunday to take on Napoli in what should have been a decisive game in the Scudetto race but in reality it is far from it. Much was expected from Napoli this season when Rafael Benitez took charge of a team which finished second last season and were looking to go one better this term. Edinson Cavani left for PSG but he was ably replaced by Gonzalo Higuain from Real Madrid along with Raul Albiol and Jose Callejon. Morgan De Sanctis was replaced by Pepe Reina and promising Belgian winger Dries Mertens was signed from PSV. January saw them bring in left back Faouzi Ghoulam from Saint-Étienne and the impressive Jorginho from Verona. But this Napoli team has been a picture of inconsistency and their once feared fortress San Paolo has been breached by Parma and Fiorentina this term while Udinese, Chievo, Sassuolo and most recently Porto have claimed damaging stalemates to leave Napoli way behind the table toppers and also out of Europe (Champions league and Europa League).
They have reached their second Coppa Italia final in three years but surely that was the least prioritized target at the beginning of the season. Defensive blunders and lack of concentration were seen far too often in the Champions League just as they were in Serie A. Benitez has not yet found his preferred center back pairing while injuries to full backs Zúñiga and Mesto has not helped the cause either. Pepe Reina looked shaky in the first couple of games of the season, but has improved vastly. Third place is more or less safe for them so they have nothing but pride to play for in this fixture. Of course, Neapolitans will cherish a victory over bitter rivals Juventus and Higuan and co. will look to do just that.
Juventus meanwhile come to this game on the back of a 7 match winning streak which included a record breaking 15th consecutive home win against high flying Parma on Wednesday. Performances have not been very impressive in the recent games but all these hard earned victories have cemented a 14 points lead at the top and also a place in the quarterfinal of the Europa League. Juventus themselves are chasing a few records namely the 100 points mark, maximum number of victories in a season and they would look for a positive result in San Paolo where they last won in this fixture back in 2000.
Team News and Tactical Brief
A home loss to Fiorentina and a depressing exit from Europa League was followed by an impressive away win at Sicily. Benitez would hope to build on that positive first half show against Catania and press home their advantage early in the game. Raul Albiol and Gonzalo Higuain were rested on Wednesday so both are expected to return to the starting lineup.
First choice left back Faouzi Ghoulam returns from suspension. Albiol will start alongside Frederico Fernandez at the heart of defence while Henrique who had a fine game on Wednesday will take up his unusual place on the right fullback position. Mesto and Juan Zuniga have started training after their long injury layoffs but are not fit enough to start such an important fixture. The double pivot midfield should see Inler start as the anchor man while Jorginho is expected to play a more supportive role to the Swiss man. Juventus should keep an eye on the long rangers from Inler as last year they were punished for offering him too much time and space.
Dries Mertens has recovered from his ankle injury but is likely to start from the bench so Lorenzo Insigne will take the right side of attack with Marek Hamsik playing just behind the striker. The ever impressive Jose Callejon completes the attacking frontline while Higuain is expected to start at the top. The three men backline of Juventus came under heavy pressure in the first fixture this season and it should be the same story this time as well. The mobile front three are expected to interchange positions to unsettle the opposition defence while the fullbacks will be looking to push up and make a telling contribution.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-2-3-1): Reina; Henrique, Fernandez, Albiol, Ghoulam; Jorginho, Inler; Callejon, Hamsik, Insigne; Higuain.
Juventus meanwhile still have only three first choice defenders to choose from as Barzagli, Ogbonna and Peluso continue to miss out through injury. Claudio Marchisio got 30 minutes game time on his return from injury against Parma but the trio of Pirlo, Pogba and Vidal are expected to start on Sunday.
Mauricio Isla will get a rare start and this could be a chance to showcase himself as a worthy candidate for the right fullback position. Kwado Asamoah will face a tough test against the wily Napoli wingers so he needs to step up his game tonight. Juventus will no doubt miss the services of in-form Carlos Tevez but Pablo Osvaldo will look to grab this opportunity and continue his fine goal scoring record at the San Paolo. He will be partnered upfront by Sebastien Giovinco as Conte will most likely rest Fernando Llorente ahead of the midweek trip to Lyon.
Probable Starting Line-up (3-5-2): Buffon (GK); Chiellini, Bonucci, Caceres; Asamoah, Isla; Pirlo, Vidal, Pogba, Osvaldo, Giovinco.
Players to Watch Out For
Martín Cáceres (Juventus)
When Andrea Barzagli pulled up during the warm-up before the Genoa game and was subsequently declared absent for 20 days, there were fears that the congested fixture list would be difficult for Juventus to handle without the ace defender. Ever since Barzagli’s absence, Juventus have conceded only two goals in five games and his replacement Martín Cáceres has been at the heart of this solid defensive unit. Cáceres himself has flourished with a steady run of games under his belt. An exemplary professional who inspite of limited game time has always answered the emergency call for his club, Cáceres has proven to be more than capable of doing a job in the three men backline.
He was solid away at Florence where Juventus had a very small margin of error. He followed up those displays with an assured performance at Sicily and Wednesday night he impressively shut out the in-form Antonio Cassano to help Juventus register yet another win at home. He is very confident with the ball evident from his 64 completed passes against Parma. Napoli will present a tough challenge on Sunday but EL Pelado will look to tackle it with supreme confidence.
Jose Callejón (Napoli)
Gonzalo Higuaín made most of the headlines upon his arrival in Naples but it is the other newcomer José Callejón who has truly surprised pundits and amazed the San Paolo crowd. Callejón is not a winger who can take out a defender with only his speed but in the middle he is emphatically decisive. A tremendously versatile player capable of playing in any position upfront, Callejon has scored some stunning goals this season as well as creating decisive goal scoring opportunities for his teammates. His winner against Roma was a classy finish similar to a seasoned striker. Juventus must keep an eye on the Spaniard as he looks to add to his 16 goals this season.
Napoli 1–1 Juventus
Juventus have not won in Naples since 2000. They will be looking to break this jinx but have a tough task in front of them with their top scorer Tevez suspended. It is true that the fortress has been breached several times this season but Napoli will look to raise their game a few notches higher in this high voltage clash. Expect a tight and tense encounter with both sides cancelling each other out.
Blast From the Past
Last time Juventus came back with three points from San Paolo was back in 2000 when goals from Del Piero and Kovacevic helped Carlo Ancelotti’s men overturn a first half goal from Stellone to beat Zeman’s Napoli . Napoli finished the season on 17th place and were subsequently relegated to Serie B.