Napoli supporters would have been waiting what feels like an eternity for this game. But finally, on Sunday at the San Paolo, they will welcome league leaders Juventus.
All the ingredients are there for a fascinating occasion in Naples. There’s a needle between the two teams, the return of Juventus man Gonzalo Higuain and, perhaps most importantly of all, a chance for the home side to haul themselves back into the race for the Serie A title.
Indeed, for Juventus this is arguably the biggest obstacle between them and what would be a sixth league triumph in a row. Massimiliano Allegri’s side currently lead Roma, in second place, by eight points and Napoli by 10; the gap to the capital club could be chopped down to five come kick off on Sunday night.
Napoli won’t believe they’re quite out of this one yet either. Maurizio Sarri’s men would be disappointed to have fallen out of the Champions League in the round-of-16 against Real Madrid, but there’s still positivity at the San Paolo. This is a vibrant team the supporters evidently believe in.
Those same fans will make for a stirring atmosphere too, although expect a fair degree of hostility to be aimed in the direction of Higuain. The Argentina striker irked the Partenopei supporters when he left Napoli, where he was previously idolized, for Juventus in the summer and will return to his former stomping ground for the first time.
With invective certain to fly his way, the Juve No. 9 will be desperate to show his class on this massive stage. He’s already come back to haunt his former side this season too, netting the winner in a 2-1 victory at Juventus Stadium in the reverse fixture.
Where to watch the game on US TV and streaming
Date: Sunday, April 2, 2017
Time: 2:45 p.m. (ET), 11:45 a.m. (PT), 7:45 p.m. (BST)
US TV: Not televised live. Will be shown on tape delay from 6-8pm ET.
US Streaming: Live from 2:45pm ET on beIN SPORTS Connect and fuboTV (7-day free trial)
If you do want to watch the game live via beIN SPORTS Connect, be sure to follow the step-by-step instructions in the video below to see how you can use the 7-day free trial from fuboTV to access beIN SPORTS Connect:
Note: beIN SPORTS Connect doesn’t work on the Firefox browser.
When Napoli made the decision to sell Higuain last summer there were big doubts about how they’d replace his goals, with a staggering 36 netted in the league last season. But Sarri has made the Partenopei a much more functional team.
His decision to opt for a fluid and diminutive front three has been inspired, if not a little forced by the injury problems endured by summer signing Arkadiusz Milik. Dries Mertens has excelled as a false nine, with his clever movement in the final third freeing up space for wingers Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon.
The end result has been some enthralling football. The fluency with which Mertens, Insigne and Callejon have interchanged has been joyous, but potent too. Napoli are the top scorers in Italian football’s top flight this season.
Yet if they are going to trouble the Bianconeri and potentially haul themselves back into the title picture at this late stage of the campaign, we need to see more from Napoli. At times, Sarri has struggled to find the right balance in midfield, while their cavalier style naturally leaves the defense a little exposed at times.
But they won’t change for this one. Sarri will want to see his players pressing from the front, knocking Juventus out of kilter and feeding off the atmosphere that’ll be conjured by those in attendance. Do that, and they have the firepower to cause any side problems in European football.
And with 10 points the gap to the top and just six points separating the Partenopei from fourth place Lazio, only a win will do here.
You sense Allegri may have been happy the international hiatus rolled around when it did, as Juve were starting to look a little bit jaded a fortnight ago.
They were fortunate to beat AC Milan with a late and controversial penalty, eventually toppled 10-man Porto in the second leg of their Champions League round-of-16 tie and were narrow 1-0 winners away at Sampdoria in their last outing.
Granted, they’re matches Juve have eventually won. But the swagger that makes this side such an irresistible force at their best was lacking. With the Bianconceri still battling for trophies on three fronts—in Serie A, the Champions League and the Coppa Italia—perhaps a bit of weariness is no great surprise.
But you can bet they’ll be roused for this one. There are so many massive personalities in the Juventus squad that thrive away at hostile venues, with the pressure on and a chance to make a big step towards the league title. Don’t expect any player in black and white to shirk their responsibilities here.
Higuain is a player, for all his talents, that has a reputation for occasionally going missing on the biggest occasion and it’ll be intriguing to see how he reacts to the jeers of those who used to idolize him. With just one goal in his last seven, this would be a perfect venue to rediscover his goalscoring touch again.
If Roma can beat Empoli on Saturday, the pressure will be heaped on Juventus when they take to field a day later. But a win here, at the most fervent of away venues, would surely put an end to any lingering hopes the chasing pack have of reeling in the champions.
Key Battle – Gonzalo Higuain vs. Kalidou Koulibaly & Raul Albiol
There will be so much focus on the role of Higuain here, with the majority of those in attendance hoping that Koulibaly and Albiol can keep the lid on their former forward.
Although Higuain hasn’t been quite at his best as of late, the striker is such a danger. Around the box he links the play brilliantly, while his movement is so sharp, able to pull defenders out of position and find space. Plus, give him a second of time on the ball, he’s got the quality to finish in many different ways.
For the Napoli duo, nullifying his influence will be difficult, but they’re capable. Koulibaly has the physicality to impose himself on Higuain, while Albiol will look to be cannier in his positioning, preventing the forward from finding those pockets.
Although Juventus have myriad other attacking threats, their No. 9 is the man with composure that can decide this kind of encounter. And he’s the man the Napoli supporters would least like to see on the scoresheet on Sunday.