Zaza swings Serie A title pendulum in Juventus' favour in Napoli win
Three quick thoughts on Juventus' late 1-0 win over Napoli in Serie A in Turin on Saturday.
1. Zaza swings title pendulum in Juve's favour
It was a meeting of Serie A's best attack and the league's best defence, and the second best attack against the second best defence. Essentially, it was about the two sides setting the agenda in Italian football.
Free-scoring Napoli, with Gonzalo Higuain on course to shatter numerous goal-scoring records in Serie A this season with 24 goals in 25 games, were up against Juventus' mean defence, which had shipped just 15 goals. What happens, then, when these two extremes collide? True to traditions of the Italian game, it was the defence that came out on top.
Already gritting his teeth after an earlier clash of knees with teammate Sami Khedira, Leonardo Bonucci exemplified his heart with an intervention that showed how the fine Italian art of defending is still prospering. With Higuain bowing to meet Elseid Hysaj's cross ready to put the Azzurri in front, Bonucci stretched every sinew of his right foot to get his big toe to the ball and divert it, decisively, beyond the Argentinean's reach.
Alongside Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli turned back the clock once again to help silence the league's most prolific scorer. These are the foundations, together with the injured Giorgio Chiellini, upon which Juve have built their recent success. On such foundations, a fifth straight Scudetto is now looking more a likelihood than just a possibility for the Old Lady.
When you can manage to keep things so tight at the back, only one goal up front will suffice, and that was precisely how Juve climbed to the top of the table on Saturday for the first time this season. Simone Zaza's deflected effort just two minutes from time exalted the work of those further back who had done all the hard work for him to swing the title pendulum in Juve's favour.
2. Title fight doesn't live up to hype
It has been many years, if not decades, since a Serie A fixture has been hyped as much as this one. During its 1980s and '90s heyday, Calcio was one of the biggest weekend attractions worldwide, with the biggest names in football exclusively on show in Italy. With the likes of Diego Maradona, Gabriel Batistuta and Roberto Baggio, it is easy to see how Italian football became so entrancing.
One particular fixture stood out 30 years ago as one that would get the tongues wagging. The nation would stand still on two occasions each year; when Juventus, representing the north, would meet Napoli, defending the honour of the south.
Saturday was the first time in almost three decades that this game meant so much. With Napoli two points ahead of Juve at the top of the standings, the prospect of the Azzurri winning their first title since 1990 was alive, and everybody wanted to see if Maurizio Sarri's men were the real thing.
Ultimately, with the stakes so high, the game failed to live up to its billing. Perhaps it was the fear of losing that prevented the Neapolitans from showing the free-flowing football that has characterised their climb up the standings; did they get stage fright?
Juve, more compelled to win given their two-point deficit in the table, had to gamble more and it was this that saw them come away with a valuable victory, even if it was far from vintage stuff from Massimiliano Allegri's men. Aside from their defence, which excelled again, Claudio Marchisio could not take the game by the scruff of its neck and Paul Pogba appeared, at times, numbed by his common affliction of simply wanting to do too much and be too extravagant. Paulo Dybala and Alvaro Morata choked up front and only Zaza redeemed Juve with the winner.
Just down the road from Turin, the annual Sanremo music festival was Saturday's other major public attraction in Italy. The crowning moment of the five-day festival was not expected to draw its usual 12-million viewing figures with RAI International pushing the programme back to give Juve-Napoli its primetime slot.
Schedule planners will, with hindsight, be left wondering if that was a wise decision after all, with certainly several million Napoli fans perhaps wishing they had had more to sing about on Saturday.
3. Juventus demonstrate title mettle
With 15 Serie A wins in a row, Juventus are now in pole position to become the first club to win five straight Serie A titles for the second time in their history. Zaza's late strike lifted the Bianconeri to the top of the pile for the first time this season, and after being as many as four wins off the summit earlier this season, their steep rise is looking ominous.
They passed the acid test of their revival on Saturday, overtaking the only side who, with eight wins in a row up to this fixture, had looked capable of wrestling the title away from Turin this season.
More than just being top of the table, though, Juve also have momentum on their side. The last time they lost was October. Since then, they have conceded just six in their past 15 games, and preventing the league's most prolific side from scoring is about as big a statement as they come.
Even before Saturday's clash, it was evident that these would be the two sides to contest the title. With just one point between them and a further 10 down to third place, that still holds true.
Napoli will need to recover quickly from their disappointment, however, particularly bearing in mind how big a draw would have been to them, and how painful it instead was to have that snatched away from them so late on.
The Azzurri would not just have gotten a point for a draw at the Juventus Stadium, they would technically have gained two. Thanks to their 2-1 win over the Bianconeri at home earlier this season, a draw would have seen them with a superior head-to-head record, and an advantage in the event of ending the season on the same number of points.
That advantage has now gone and Juve, with the experience of the past four years, are in the familiar position of leading the way into the final decisive months of the season. Europe should not get in their way either. Juventus face Bayern Munich in the Champions League round of 16, but Napoli potentially have to fit even more fixtures into the next few months, if they can get through their last-32 Europa League tie with Villarreal.
It is once again advantage Juve in the race for the Serie A title, thanks to Zaza's late strike.
Ben Gladwell reports on Serie A, the Italian national team and the Bundesliga for ESPN FC, UEFA and the Press Association. @UEFAcomBenG.