Napoli refusing to give up on Scudetto dream
After Serie A's midweek games, the title race is suddenly back on again. For Napoli, it was never off.
Maurizio Sarri has regularly insisted he is not worried about Juventus, but he will have to turn his attention to the leaders sooner rather than later. Napoli meet Juventus on Sunday in Turin in a potential Scudetto decider.
At one stage on Wednesday, Napoli were nine points behind Juve. But Sarri's men fought back to beat Udinese and Crotone claimed a draw against the champions - thanks to a stunning Cristiano Ronaldo-style bicycle kick from Simy - leaving the gap at four points.
"We showed our personality again and managed to turn the match around," captain Marek Hamsik wrote on his website. What looked like becoming a procession is a scrap once more.
Napoli deserve credit for taking the title battle this far. With 81 points on the board from 33 matches, they have shown Scudetto-winning form. Their only problem? Juve are even better.
At least - unlike in England, France, Spain, Netherlands and so on - there has been a race to speak of
Just two defeats all season, coming against Roma and Juventus, represents remarkable consistency, even if Sarri's side have dropped more points than they would have liked in recent weeks. Draws at Inter, Sassuolo and AC Milan in the past three away games opened the door for Juve to claim top spot.
And yet, the league is still alive. As Lorenzo Insigne told Sky Sport Italia of the blockbuster clash with Juventus: "We've proved that Napoli have grit and heart. It's XI against XI - and may the best team win."
Napoli had to come from behind twice to beat Udinese and they also trailed at home to Chievo earlier this month before late goals from Arkadiusz Milik and Amadou Diawara turned the match around in the dying minutes.
28 - Napoli have gained the most points from trailing situations in this Serie A campaign (28). Alive.-- OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) April 18, 2018
That resilience shows Napoli are not ready to give up hope of catching Juve, with the return from injury of Poland international Milik a timely boost. He has scored in two of Napoli's last three matches, providing further depth to a dangerous attack.
Indeed, had teenage goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma not made a late wondersave from Milik, Napoli would have won at Milan and been heading to Turin within striking distance of Juve.
Sarri will be hoping recent history is not a bad omen. The Italian - reportedly a contender to replace compatriot Antonio Conte at Chelsea - has lost five of his seven games against the Bianconeri, while star man Mertens has failed to score in his past seven league meetings with Juve.
Napoli are also on an unenviable run of six consecutive defeats in Turin encounters between the sides, so the head-to-head record is certainly against the Partenopei. If they are to stop Juve - who still have to go to Inter and Roma - from wrapping up what would be a seventh consecutive Scudetto, that run has to come to an end this weekend.
"Clearly, it's difficult to go to Turin and try to get the victory," said Sarri of Sunday's game. "As in terms of strength in depth, I think Juventus are the most complete team in Europe. We'll give it our best shot."
Difficult may be putting it mildly. Juve have won seven straight Serie A home games, conceding just once in that run. Lazio are the only team to have won in Turin since 2015. The reigning champions have one of the strongest home records in world football.
Napoli have not won the Scudetto since their Diego Maradona-inspired vintage of 1989; a generation of the club's supporters have grown up without seeing their club lift the Serie A trophy. They have finished second behind Juventus twice in the past five years. If they are to avoid the same fate again this term, victory this weekend is the only option.
"There are five rounds left, so saying it all depends on the match in Turin is reductive," added Sarri, gamely trying to play down the importance of the match. "It's a difficult fixture, just as it would be travelling to Paris or Manchester."
The Neapolitans certainly have the attacking threats to hurt Juve. Milik is pushing for selection, but 17-goal Mertens could keep his place. Insigne and Jose Callejon, who will likely start wide in a front three on Sunday, are both closing in on 10 league goals.
And captain Hamsik, the record scorer in Napoli history after overhauling Maradona, is a threat from midfield. His partner Jorginho is a reported target for Manchester City and Manchester United, while Piotr Zielinski is one of Europe's most exciting young players.
The talent is certainly there. But holding on to their stars and Sarri in the event of missing out on the title again could be a challenge. Sunday's match could not be more important for this proud club and their swashbuckling team.