Why Juventus vs. Napoli will be the highlight of the 2015-16 Serie A season
It's not decisive, the protagonists insist. Juventus-Napoli is not the Super Bowl. The fate of the Scudetto doesn't depend on it. Thirteen games will remain after this weekend, with 39 points still to play for. The fixture list and the math support their argument, but who are they kidding? Games don't get much bigger than this one.
If Juventus come out on top they will lead Serie A for the first time this season. It's something captain Gigi Buffon admits was "unthinkable" after that October night in Reggio Emilia when the champions were 11 points off the pace. Should the champions get in front, one suspects they'll stay there and emulate the Juventus team of the 1930s that won the league five times in a row. They've got the experience to see it out and would draw huge confidence from a win this weekend.
Even for this group of history-makers, it would stand as arguably their greatest achievement. Last season Juventus lost Antonio Conte and almost won the treble. This season they had to bid farewell to Carlos Tevez, Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal, made their worst start in 103 years and might still retain the title. It's a measure of their immense character but there's another factor: the pressure really is on as Juventus arguably have the most to lose.
Lose and they'll be five points behind again but the disadvantage would actually be greater because after their 2-1 defeat at the San Paolo in September, Napoli would have the edge on head-to-head as well. Psychologically, if Juventus were to go down, it would be the most significant loss they have ever suffered at the J Stadium -- and the only one of genuine consequence in the league.
For Napoli, it would be huge. They have never won there, with the aggregate score at 11-1 in Juve's favour. Historically speaking, Napoli have only got the better of the Old Lady in Turin on seven occasions. The last time was on Halloween seven years ago and of the first team players involved, only captain Marek Hamsik -- the hero that night, scoring a brace -- still plays for the club.
Make no mistake: Napoli have been building towards this. Other than Juventus, they've put up more points than anyone in the league over the past five years. They're the only other club to have won anything in Italy during that time -- they lifted the Coppa Italia for the first time since 1987, not once but twice, denying Juventus in the final in 2012 and then in the Super Cup in Doha a year ago.
Of all the teams to have come at the king during Juve's accession to the throne and throughout their reign, this Napoli side is the most formidable challenger to their crown. They have posed a greater and more sustained threat than Roma did even in Rudi Garcia's first season, when they came out of the blocks, winning their opening 10 games and after all was said and done, establishing a club record points total that would have been enough to take the title in five of the previous six years.
What has impressed so far about Napoli is how they have kept their nerve since becoming winter champions. Juventus are on a club record 14-game winning run but even that hasn't been enough to overtake their rivals. Rather than allow it to unsettle them, Napoli have responded in kind with eight straight wins, a club record of their own. One of those streaks will end on Saturday, or perhaps both. "Above all, it's important not to lose," Buffon told Sky Italia.
Saturday's encounter is being framed as Italy's best defence going up against its best attack and the temptation is obvious.
Juventus have conceded only 15 goals this season, just once in 2016. Buffon hasn't had to pick the ball out of his net in five games. Last weekend's win at Frosinone was the fourth time this season an opponent hasn't even registered a single shot on target.
Napoli, by contrast, have scored 53 league goals -- 78 in all competitions. They've scored five on six occasions and are averaging 2.2 per game. Only Barcelona's MSN is out-scoring Gonzalo Higuain, Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon in Europe's top five leagues. Statistically, not even Napoli's famous "Ma-Gi-Ca" trident of Maradona, Bruno Giordano and Andrea Carnevale come close.
Higuain has scored 24 goals in 24 games and is on course to break Gunnar Nordahl's 66-year record for the most prolific season since Serie A went to 20 teams. Insigne was the first player in Europe's top five leagues this year to get into double figures for both goals and assists. Callejon didn't find the net in the league until mid-December but has now had nine in his last eight appearances.
As if that wasn't enough cause for anxiety among Juventus fans, there's the injury absence of Giorgio Chiellini. Utility man Martin Caceres is out for the season after snapping his Achilles tendon and Daniele Rugani -- although regarded as the best young centre-back in Italy by his ex-mentor, Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri -- is short of match rhythm this season. A change to a back four looks on the cards, which seems a risk as their resurgence has coincided with a return to the 3-5-2 they played under Antonio Conte.
To be fair to Allegri, though, he rarely gets his tactics wrong in big games like these. Yet Chiellini's injury must be of no small encouragement to Sarri's side. Napoli's attack has evidently gone to another level this season but it has been the team's strength for years. In the past five seasons, they have outscored Juventus 339 to 336. Where they have come up short is in their tactics and personnel in midfield and defence. But not anymore.
The individual match-ups are fascinating. Paul Pogba announced himself to Serie A with a wonder goal against Napoli and has scored three against them. Hamsik is now the Frank Lampard-esque midfielder he always promised to become. Claudio Marchisio is the one player Juventus absolutely cannot do without. He balances the team. Jorginho is the tempo-setting controller Napoli lacked. World Cup winner Sami Khedira is out (another crucial absentee) but Stefano Sturaro brings an intensity reminiscent of Gennaro Gattuso. Allan is Napoli's midfield terrier and provides them with bite where once they were toothless -- a past role as a No.10 means he is pretty handy in the final third, too, and his late runs in the box are a threat.
Where Napoli have improved most is at the back. They conceded 93 goals to Juventus' 47 in the Rafa Benitez years -- too many to ever be competitive. This season they have already recorded more clean sheets (11) than in all of last season (9) and have allowed only four more goals than Juventus. Pepe Reina has not only added leadership, he has given the defenders in front of him peace of mind. One of them, Kalidou Koulibaly, is the most improved player in Serie A this season. His performances have drawn comparisons with Lilian Thuram and such connections don't sound ludicrous at all.
How Napoli deal with the trickery of Paulo Dybala will be fascinating. He is the only player challenging Higuain for the league's MVP award. Twenty of Juventus' goals have carried his signature, with 13 directly from his boots and seven from teammates assisted by his genius.
It's all so even. Too close to call. Napoli appear healthier. Sarri isn't missing any of his first team regulars while Juventus are without Chiellini, Khedira and Mario Mandzukic. Both teams have shown signs of tiredness of late from pushing each other to the absolute limit. But come Saturday night, the adrenaline will kick in; the sense of occasion and an awareness of what's at stake will too.
Mark it: Juventus vs. Napoli promises to be one of the great games of 2016.
James contributes to ESPN FC, Guardian Football Weekly, FourFourTwo and The Blizzard. Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.