Napoli beat Juventus to create a genuine Serie A title race
TURIN, Italy -- They said Napoli couldn't do it and the case against their title challenge was easy enough to understand. The Partenopei don't have the depth to win the Scudetto, they said, but Maurizio Sarri knows a thing or two about revolutions.
"You only need 16 men for a coup d'etat" is one of his favourite sayings. It led La Gazzetta dello Sport to re-name him the "Che Guevara of Figline." After beating Genoa in mid-March, Sarri said "If it were down to me, I'd go all the way to the Palace and take power." The Palace, as he sees it, is the Allianz Stadium in Turin and Napoli stormed it on Sunday night.
The Partenopei had not won in Turin in close to a decade. Juventus were still playing at the Olimpico, a ground we now know as the Stadio Grande Torino, back then and it was the other knock on their title credentials. Napoli couldn't beat Juventus in their own backyard. Hardly anyone could, in fairness, but it was as if the Partenopei had an inferiority complex.
Napoli were top of Serie A when they came to Turin two years ago. They lost 1-0. Massimiliano Allegri threw on Simone Zaza and the striker (now at Valencia) won the game for him. It felt symbolic; the cambi ("sub") made the difference. One team had alternatives on the bench. The others didn't and if he did, Sarri didn't use them.
Sarri has taken a lot of stick in this respect but Sunday night's dramatic 1-0 win represented vindication. Napoli are practically the same in name as they were in February of 2016. Nine of the players who lost that night played this evening, too. It would have been 10 had Faouzi Ghoulam not been injured while the other, Gonzalo Higuain, was playing for Juventus instead.
Rather than improve the team by signing better players, Sarri has made the players he already had better. A lot better. Napoli have matured and you can measure it in a couple of metrics.
One is the points they have recovered from losing positions (28). The team doesn't scare as easily. They're unfazed.
The other is their record on the road. Napoli are as good away from home as they are at the San Paolo. They haven't lost in 30 games in trasferta. The last was that defeat to Juventus in Turin in 2016, which is why Sunday night's win only serves to further underline how far this team has come. The burden is off their back while the middle finger Sarri showed to Juventus fans before the game, in hindsight, would probably have been better directed at anyone who doubted his team.
Napoli deserved their victory. Juventus never looked comfortable. Part of that was down to Giorgio Chiellini's injury after only a minute. Juventus lost their best defender and one of their leaders, while the sudden nature of the injury meant no-one was warmed up ready to replace him. Chiellini grit his teeth and tried to play on but as the veteran suffered, so did his team.
Allegri could have made a like-for-like replacement, switching Chiellini for one of Andrea Barzagli or Daniele Rugani; instead he threw on right-back Stephane Lichsteiner and asked the adaptable Benedikt Howedes to fill in for Chiellini. Renowned for changing games from the bench, Allegri lost a substitution and a card to play with.
The yellow cards were stacking up, too. Mehdi Benatia, Kwadwo Asamoah and Miralem Pjanic were all in the book already and the risk of losing a man presumably also weighed on Allegri's mind when it came to deciding what to do with his team as the game wore on. The transition from right-back to centre-back did not go smoothly for Howedes, either; Pjanic got angry with him after he allowed Marek Hamsik to get the run on him and flash a shot across the box, which was enough to persuade Allegri to switch Benatia and Howedes around.
Napoli needed to take advantage while on top. Jorginho was practically free to do whatever he wanted and it came as little surprise when Paulo Dybala was withdrawn at the interval. The Argentine couldn't get into the game. Disrupting Jorginho and Napoli's build-up play would have helped but Allegri didn't see enough diligence to justify leaving him on. The champions threatened little; but for the odd switch of play and a succession of corner kicks on the 15-minute mark, when it looked like Juventus might bring to bear their superior height and physicality, they showed little and were too negative.
Overall, Juventus failed to register a single shot on target. Credit for that must go to Napoli and it was telling how Gianluigi Buffon and Benatia stood out as Juventus' best performers on the night. There is a reason why the Bianconeri have kept 21 clean sheets this season. Still, you always felt Napoli had a chance against a backline comprising of Howedes, Lichtsteiner and Kwadwo Asamoah.
The breakthrough came in the 90th minute. Goals from Napoli's attackers have been hard to come by of late, which is why extra attention has been placed on set-pieces. Raul Albiol and Lorenzo Tonelli scored from corner kicks against Udinese on Wednesday but it was Kalidou Koulibaly's turn on Sunday night. Nicknamed "K2" on account of his initials and his stature -- the Senegal international centre-back is a man mountain -- he called it "the most important goal of my career."
Lost in all of this is the fact Juventus are still top, by a single point, and have all the experience that comes with winning six titles in a row. But Chiellini has hyper-extended his knee and their run-in is tough. Juventus have the Derby d'Italia at San Siro next week and go to the capital to play Roma on the penultimate weekend of the season, just four days after the Coppa Italia against Milan.
Contrast their schedule with Napoli's and you can see why fans of the Partenopei are crossing their fingers and hoping for the best with four rounds of matches remaining. After Fiorentina next week, it's downhill (in theory) and the Viola have lost back-to-back games. They look tired; who can blame them after spending almost all of the Lazio and Sassuolo games down to 10 men?
"For now, we're going to enjoy this win," said a beaming Lorenzo Insigne. He can only imagine the reception awaiting him and the team back home. By all accounts, it's like New Year in Naples tonight; heck, 3,000 Napoli fans escorted the team to the airport on Saturday. "Come back champions," they said.
Napoli are not champions yet. Incredibly though, for a team that found themselves nine points behind Juventus at one point on Wednesday, they just might be come the end of the season.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.