Napoli Stalls Juve’s Title March

NAPOLI

 

Napoli condemned Juventus to only their second defeat of the season as Rafael Benitez’s men outplayed the champions 2-0 at the Stadio San Paolo. Goals from José María Callejón and a wonderful effort from substitute Dries Mertens kept Napoli in the hunt for second place which would mean automatic Champions League qualification.

 

Before Juventus’ trip to Naples on Sunday, the Bianconeri’s march to a third consecutive Serie A title had already been seen as a formality. Antonio Conte’s men enjoyed a 12 point gap between them and second-placed Roma and barring a mother of all chokes, they will win the Serie A. But this hasn’t been the vintage Juventus we saw for most of last season and for most of the first half of this. In 2014, the Old Lady has done just enough to see off her opponents but the performances have been unconvincing and moments of inspiration from Andrea Pirlo and Carlos Tevez have made the difference. Another cause for concern for Conte has been to shuffle his resources in order to keep the players fresh for the Europa League where Juventus have a chance to play the final in front of their own fans.

 

Against Napoli, Juve’s old problems resurfaced as they started really poorly and showed a lack of intensity and hunger. Their opponents, whose season took a tail-spin after a demoralizing defeat to Porto in the Europa League, were focused on making amends for the 3-0 loss they suffered at the hands of Juve earlier in the season. Lorenzo Insigne and Callejón best exemplified the home side’s early dominance as the pair tormented Juve’s wing-backs Stefan Lichtsteiner and Kwadwo Asamoah. The home side felt they’d taken a early 7th minute lead when Marek Hamšík turned the ball in after Gianluigi Buffon had spilled a cross but the referee flagged for offside despite replays showing otherwise.

 

With the Bainconeri’s wingers tied to their defensive duties, the onus fell on the likes of Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal to assist Pirlo in conjuring some activity down the middle but with the latter marked expertly by Jorginho, the Old Lady seemed crippled of any creativity. The first goal came with a hint of controversy as central defender Giorgio Chiellini was nursing an injury on the sidelines and it was the space vacated by his temporary absence that Napoli exploited. Insigne noticed Callejón had stolen a run on Asamoah and the Italian’s pass was steered past Gianluigi Buffon by the former Real Madrid man.

 

Would the goal spur the sleeping Bianconeri into action?

 

Conte would’ve loved to have Carlos Tevez on the pitch but the Argentine’s unavailability because of a suspension was really hurting the Bianconeri as the front pairing of Fernando Llorente and Dani Oswaldo were spectators for most of the first half. For much of the second half, the Partenopei repelled any Juventus attacks. The home side almost doubled their lead 15 minutes into the 2nd half but Buffon flew across goal to brilliantly deny Faouzi Ghulam’s excellent free kick. Conte had seen enough and brought in Mirko Vicinic for Osvaldo and the effect was almost immediate. The Montenegrin first saw his effort go wide and then set-up another substitute Mauricio Isla but the Italian was unable to get his cross in from a very good position. Where Juve’s subs came close, Napoli’s would prove decisive as Goran Pandev and Dries Mertens combined beautifully to kill the game. Pandev profits from a quick throw out from Pepe Reina and the Macedonian launches a cross-field ball to Mertens who brought the ball down with unerring ease and then fired an unstoppable shot past a stranded Buffon.

 

Fulltime was greeted by an almighty roar as Napoli kept the gap between them and Roma to 6 points while Juventus have to quickly dust themselves off for a crucial midweek Europa League encounter with Lyon. By the time Juve play their next Serie A match, the lead at the summit could be whittled down to 5 points but as of now they need to shake of the rust that sets-in after going so long without a defeat. Should they fail, they will risk throwing away what seemed like a record breaking season.

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