Juventus, Napoli prepare for Serie A's biggest match of the season
You know Juventus versus Napoli is Serie A's biggest game of the season when even New York City's Mayor, Bill de Blasio, is tweeting about it. Broadcast in 200 countries around the world, the duel between Italy's two finest teams this season has enchanted millions with even Mundo Deportivo, the Spanish newspaper, likening the fixture to the spectacle that is El Clasico.
A mouthwatering clash, THE tie of the season, Saturday night will tell us whether Napoli really have what it takes to win the title or if Juventus are the eternal league champions.
So what can we expect when Serie A's best defence welcome the league's strongest attack?
Permit me a cliche but it's often said that offence wins games but defence wins championships, that often holds true in Serie A and not only there. The Denver Broncos' sensational defence was enough to defeat the mighty Carolina Panthers -- the favourites to lift the trophy -- and win the Super Bowl. The side that concedes the fewest goals in Italy often wins the Scudetto, can Napoli prove otherwise?
Under Maurizio Sarri, the Partenopei have used the foundations laid by ex-coach Rafa Benitez and built upon them to create an effective unit that works beautifully together. While the former Empoli coach had hopes of deploying the brilliance of a trequartista, he soon realised that the 4-3-3 formation perfectly extolled the virtues of some of the individuals in his team.
This is now a Napoli side that work in a compact manner, essentially a short team where the distance between the defence and forward line is rarely more than 30 metres. This has been done in an effort to rescue the side from the frailties that exist in defence.
Under Benitez, the Azzurri may have scored the goals but they also conceded too many to mount a serious challenge for the title. By keeping a compact shape, it not only becomes easier to win back possession and rotate the ball with greater ease but it offers security to a centre-back partnership that lacks pace and can easily be overwhelmed.
With Allan's perfect interpretation of his dual role, Jorginho providing the short passes that keep the team moving and Marek Hamsik affording the team the vertical edge that unleashes the forwards, Napoli simply cannot stop scoring. Gonzalo Higuain is in excellent form, benefiting from his remarkable understanding with both Lorenzo Insigne, the player now afforded more freedom to roam and drop deep as well as Jose Callejon -- the master of sacrificing himself for the good of the team.
A team that has maintained the high pressure, high intensity game played under Benitez, Sarri has simply enhanced the tactics, allowing for more ball possession and rotation to create more opportunities and subsequently defensive protection.
Yet for all of the Partenopei's offensive brilliance, they rarely keep a clean sheet and it remains to be seen how they will pierce through a Bianconeri defence that has conceded only four goals since the end of November. In their last 11 league games, Juventus have kept eight clean sheets and scored 28, an average of 2.5 goals a game.
Allegri's Juve have not only managed a club record 14 Serie A wins in a row but they are team with no weaknesses, perfectly combining attacking wizardly with sensational defence. Boasting tactical intelligence and a squad brimming with varied talent, this is far from a predictable side that exploits the same avenues. This is a Bianconeri team that attack in the wide areas, split sides through the middle and make the most of set pieces, comprehensively defeating organised opponents.
In addition to perfect tactical balance, the Old Lady is now accustomed to winning. Interviewed by Sport Mediaset last year, Sarri asked a question of his own" "Do you really want to know the difference between Juventus and the others?"
"When Empoli were playing the big teams, we tip-toed out onto the field; Juventus, however, would be screaming and shouting in the dressing room as if they were about to face Bayern Munich.
"This is the mentality that Napoli are still lacking."
Perhaps not anymore. Sarri has been instrumental in changing the mentality of his players and removing external pressures to allow his men to enjoy their games and their position in the table. Few sides could keep collecting consecutive wins with a hungry Juve breathing down their necks yet Higuain and Co. continue going.
It helps to have Pepe Reina in the team. According to a recent article in Corriere del Mezzogiorno, the goalkeeper's leadership skills have not only helped motivate the team but he was also the man who suggested Sarri change formations, the player who is invited to tactical meetings when Napoli prepare for upcoming fixtures.
A clash of inspirational goalkeepers? Having experienced winners like Gianluigi Buffon in a squad teaching the young new arrivals at Juve what it means to don the Bianconeri jersey is the reason why Juventus managed to change their season around. Can he help to keep them going?
Sadly for Juve, they will be missing the warrior that is Giorgio Chiellini as well as the intelligent Sami Khedira. As such, it's likely Allegri will deploy a 4-3-3 formation that will morph into a 3-5-2 when the Bianconeri are chasing possession.
With Daniele Rugani thought to be too inexperienced for such a high profile clash against offensive titans, Allegri will ask Juan Cuadrado to line up alongside Paulo Dybala and Alvaro Morata in attack but also be prepared to track back and act as a defender when the ball is in Napoli's hands.
Facing their biggest challenge of their Serie A season, can Juventus make it 15 wins in a row?
Mina Rzouki covers Juventus and the Italian national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Minarzouki.