Round 34 of 2017/18 Serie A season brought with it the game that was set to have a huge impact on the title race – a direct showdown between league leaders Juventus and second-place Napoli, with the difference between the teams only four points.
Both managers arranged their players in the 4-3-3 formation.
Massimiliano Allegri played a back four of Benatia and Chiellini as the centre-backs flanked by Höwedes and Asamoah, in front of Buffon in goal. Pjanić, Khedira and Matuidi formed the midfield, while Dybala and Douglas Costa supported Higuain in attack.
The team that Maurizio Sarri was made of Reina in goal, Albiol and Koulibaly ahead of him, Hysaj and Mario Rui as the fullbacks, Jorginho, Allan and Hamšik in the middle, and Callejon, Insigne and Mertens up front.
The first half – Napoli dominate
It’s fair to say the visitors dominated the first half, though they had a few lucky breaks early on. Most notably, Allegri was forced to take off Chiellini after only 10 minutes, and Juventus’ defence did not look the same after that. Lichtsteiner came on and took up the right back position, while Höwedes moved next to Benatia as a centre-back. The whole situation only added misery on Juventus’ back line as both Asamoah and Benatia managed to get booked for stopping a Napoli counterattack a minute earlier.
There was a lot of insecurity as Juventus tried to play out from the back. Napoli players either sensed that or were alerted to it by Sarri, and they pressed high throughout the half forcing the home team into mistakes quite often. The Old Lady attacked only occasionally and the visitors looked like a team that needed to win this game more – which was actually the case.
However, it was Juventus who came close first after 15 minutes when Pjanić’s free-kick scraped the wall, changed direction and hit the far post with Reina frozen to the spot.
But then Napoli took control and threatened several times. First, a wayward cross attempt from Mario Rui almost caught Buffon by surprise, and then Hamšik wasted a brilliant pass from the left back by dragging his shot from a tight angle across the goal and wide of the far post.
After around half an hour, Benatia and Höwedes switched positions and Juventus got more stable and better at taking the ball out of their half.
After 38 minutes, pass from Jorginho sent Insigne through and Buffon was beaten, but the linesman rightly raised his flag as Lichtsteiner stepped out at the last moment and caught Insigne offside.
Towards the end of the half, the game gained balance.
It should be said, referee Gianluca Rocchi was doing a difficult job well. Players threw tackles at each other, but also kept looking for contact and going down across the pitch, and it wasn’t easy to discern a foul from a dive or an overreaction. He also kept his criteria consistent, and he punished every case of recklessness with a yellow card.
The second half and unexpected finish
Allegri left Dybala in the dressing-room after the break and Juan Cuadrado took the Argentine’s place on the pitch.
Freshened up, Napoli took up their pressing tactics again. The approach again brought them sudden possession in Juventus’ half on several occasions, enabling them to catch the home team’s defence at unawares and start threatening Buffon.
Hamšik took a good shot just wide of the near post after some nice intricate play with Insigne in the 52nd minute, and then his brilliant pass was wasted by Callejon.
With an hour gone, Arkadiusz Milik replaced Mertens as Sarri started pulling his usual moves. Six minutes later, Hamšik expectedly made way for Piotr Zielinski.
The presence of Milik gave the visitors more of a focal point in attack, a player that would constantly challenge the opposition centre-backs and give them work to do, as opposed to the more fluid movements of Mertens. Zielinski, however, was a mere pair of fresh legs in midfield.
Having already spent two substitutions, it was time for Allegri to act again as the game needed balancing again. With 19 minutes to go, Mario Mandžukić came on for Douglas Costa.
Still, Juventus were only trying to take the sting out of the game, happy to have it end goalless. They fell back and only occasionally went forward. On the other hand, Napoli needed to win and their desire was beginning to show as they became more dangerous.
Buffon saved a good, difficult volley from Callejon and Benatia stopped a promising combination between Insigne and Milik.
After 80 minutes, Marko Rog replaced a tired-looking Allan for Napoli in the last substitution of the game.
Zielinski had a shot from range comfortably saved by Buffon three minutes later, and after that it seemed the visitors had run out of steam. Juventus looked like their experience would be enough to see them remain undefeated and keep their four-point advantage.
But late on, Napoli made one last push and it paid off immensely.
With a minute of regular time remaining on the clock, Insigne swung in a cross that somehow got through the crowd and almost hit the net, but Buffon diverted it out for a corner. The corner was taken by Callejon who directed a cross to the edge of the six-yard box. Koulibaly got away from Benatia, jumped and slammed his header past Buffon.
Disbelief was the overwhelming impression given off the faces of the home team’s players and fans alike as the referee blew his whistle to mark the end of the game.
Napoli got their revenge on Juventus who beat them by the same result in Naples earlier this season and moved in to just a point behind them in the table. It was well deserved as they showed far more endeavour and desire to get the three points than their hosts, who mostly seemed happy just to sit back and keep the game a dull affair. With four games remaining for both teams, the title race in the Serie A has been blown wide open.
JUVENTUS: Buffon 7, Höwedes 6.5, Benatia 6.5, Chiellini N/A (10’ Lichtsteiner 7), Asamoah 6, Khedira 6.5, Pjanić 6, Matuidi 6.5, D. Costa 6.5 ( 71’ Mandžukić 6.5), Higuain 6, Dybala 5.5 (46’ Cuadrado 5.5).
NAPOLI: Reina 6.5, Albiol 7, Koulibaly 7, Hysaj 7, Mario Rui 7.5, Jorginho 7.5, Allan 7 (80’ Rog N/A), Hamšik 7 (66’ Zielinski 6), Callejon 7, Insigne 7.5, Mertens 6 (60’ Milik 6.5).
GOAL: Koulibaly 90’.
YELLOW CARDS: Benatia 9’, Asamoah 9’, Albiol 16’, Pjanić 27’.
RED CARDS: None.
REFEREE: Gianluca Rocchi.
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