Napoli are not in 'crisis' as Serie A title race with Juve remains wide open
It could be worse for Max Allegri.
Max Allegri has got an awful lot to smile about these days. Juventus are top of the table and their dream of winning a fifth straight Scudetto for the first time since 1935 is getting closer and closer to reality. A comfortable win in Sunday's Derby d'Italia allowed the Old Lady to extend her lead in Serie A. Then on Wednesday, she booked her place in the Coppa Italia final. But only just. A mini-Istanbul was avoided as Juventus threw away a 3-0 first leg advantage yet still prevailed on penalties against Inter. Not since 1960 have they gone back to the final in consecutive years.
Still alive in the Champions League after coming back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 in the first leg of their last-16 tie with Bayern Munich, Juventus are more or less where they want to be at this stage in a season. Competitive on all fronts.
As the final year of Allegri's contract approaches, interest in him isn't lacking. First Chelsea expressed interest and now Real Madrid are believed to be giving serious thought to offering him the job at the Bernabeu. But Allegri is far from satisfied. "It really annoys me that everyone is saying we have already won the title after Napoli drew with Fiorentina," he said. As far as Allegri is concerned, the title race is apertissimo: "wide open." There are still 11 games left and 33 points to play for.
Typically a total of 86 is enough to be declared Campione d'Italia. "We still need to win a lot of games," Allegri insisted, "Napoli can get to 91. Roma can arrive at 86." It's not over yet, but confidence in Napoli's title challenge has taken a beating of late. They lost 1-0 to Juventus in Turin on Feb. 13 and with it went pole position, their opponents leapfrogging them. Without a win since, it's still rather amusing to hear talk of Napoli descending into crisis.
Less than a month ago, they broke a club record for consecutive wins that had stood since 1987. They didn't deserve to lose to Juventus. A deflected 88th minute goal at a time when both teams seemed ready to settle for a draw was all that separated them; if it weren't for Leonardo Bonucci's big toe, Gonzalo Higuain would have had one of his own in the first half. More than 2,000 fans waited outside Naples' Capodichino airport at 2:30 a.m. to let the players know they were still proud of them.
Napoli's elimination from the Europa League was unfortunate too. Pepe Reina could perhaps have gotten a hand to the wonderful Denis Suarez free-kick that went in off the bottom of the bar, edging Villarreal to a 1-0 win at El Madrigal. But the decisive away goal at the San Paolo -- a cross that looped into the far corner -- was a fluke. As for the Feb. 23 1-1 draw with Milan, one of Italy's most in-form teams, Jorginho couldn't suppress a chuckle while listening to Sky Italia's pundits discussing Napoli's "crisis."
"It makes me laugh," he said. "We massacred them. The ball just didn't go in for us." He had a case. Napoli racked up 19 goal attempts.
The only game in which they got a bit of fortune was on Monday night in Florence. Napoli had Marcos Alonso and the woodwork to thank for the point they picked up at the Artemio Franchi, as Fiorentina struck it twice. But Napoli could have won the game too had Ciprian Tatarusanu not made a fantastic double save to deny Jose Callejon and Higuain. Other than that, Napoli's performances have been better than the results would suggest. They've simply been ganged up on by Old Lady and Lady Luck.
"Are you still in the title race?" Sky Italia's sideline reporter Massimo Ugolini asked Reina. "Without doubt" was his unequivocal response. There's a steely defiance about Napoli perhaps best illustrated in the restoration of one of the famous Maradona murals in the city's Spanish quarter. Choosing to do it now is telling. Rather than it being ancient history, the prevailing attitude in Naples holds that those days are back.
So why is everyone on the outside pessimistic about Napoli's chances?
Part of it derives from respect for Juventus. Once in front, the Old Lady won't look back, not with her experience -- that's the drift. The other relates to Napoli's depth and rotation, which is what won Juventus their clash at the J-Stadium. Bonucci got hurt and had to be replaced before the hour mark. Daniele Rugani, Juventus' fourth-choice centre-back, came on and picked up where Bonucci left off. Simone Zaza, their fourth-choice striker, replaced Alvaro Morata and scored the winner.
Maurizio Sarri doesn't have the same range of options. Even if he did, it doesn't necessarily follow that he would utilise them as widely as Allegri. One of the biggest differences with his predecessor Rafa Benitez is that Sarri does not tinker. He has named the same starting XI 15 times in 27 games. Injuries and suspensions permitting, the same players kick off every game.
(To give you a comparison, Inter are the team that chop and change the most in Serie A. Eighteen of their players have clocked up 800 minutes or more. With Napoli, the number of players to have done so is a league low 11.)
Tiredness has been an increasing factor. Allan, Napoli's lungs in midfield, looks out of breath. The widemen, particularly Jose Callejon, are showing signs of fatigue. "Our best players are a little less decisive than usual," Sarri admitted. "You can't play at 100 percent for 10 months of the year." A dip is natural. Lorenzo Insigne and Callejon aren't going past players with the same ease as before.
Fatigue can impact decision making too. Combined with teams getting wiser to Napoli -- pushing them out wide and leaving Higuain isolated -- it's led to frustration for their No.9. His goal on Monday, a gift from Alonso, was his first in five hours and 12 minutes -- a virtual eternity for a striker who had scored 24 in 24 games going into the mid-February meeting with Juventus.
While it's tempting to argue that he has been going through the motions since then -- particularly after a camera shot showed him almost in tears at full-time -- the truth is his opponents in three of the last five games boast the best defences in Europe. Juventus have allowed just one goal in 2016; Gigi Buffon has now gone 12 hours and 26 minutes without conceding in Serie A. Villarreal have the second stingiest back four in La Liga.
Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis believes he is carrying too much timber. "He's a kilo and a half overweight, which is like walking around with a brick in your pocket," he said. Those Kappa shirts are unforgiving and the mozzarella di bufala may well be hard to turn down in Naples, but De Laurentiis misdiagnosed the problem. This isn't on Higuain -- his teammates have got to score goals too. Eighteen different players have found the net for joint top scorers Roma, compared to just eight for Napoli -- they're almost exclusively forward players, too.
Unlike at Empoli last season where his centre-backs Rugani and Lorenzo Tonelli struck eight times, Sarri has got only one goal from his defenders this term. The midfield isn't pulling its weight either in this regard -- Jorginho has yet to get off the mark in the league and Allan has run dry since October. It's an area Napoli have got to improve but cause for optimism remains. The gap between them and Juve is just three points. Their fixture list is lighter than their rival's and more favourable. Up next are Chievo, Palermo, Genoa, Udinese and Verona: a chance to gather steam again.
Napoli's elimination from the Coppa and the Europa League means they can focus on recovering and winning Serie A. "If Juve had won the Scudetto already we'd be having a party on Sunday but there will be no party," Allegri said. He knows Napoli are going to make them work for it.
James contributes to ESPN FC, Guardian Football Weekly, FourFourTwo and The Blizzard. Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.