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Juventus wants to be great in Europe but must conquer Napoli first

TORINO -- On a chilly night in the shadow of the Alps, Juventus easily dispatched Bologna, 2-0, and finally Serie A could focus on the biggest match of this young season: Napoli's return to Juventus on Saturday. Down beneath the stadium, with midnight approaching, Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri took his seat for post-game questions. Somehow, two reporters managed to not ask about Allegri's next opponent but the third got straight to the point: Napoli was seeking its second straight win at Allianz Stadium.

"The head-to-head matches are always complicated," Allegri said. "Napoli is the antagonist of Juventus right now."

The teams are once again ranked one and two, where they've been for much of the past two years. At the end of last season, Napoli came to Torino and beat Juventus. That night felt like the end of one era and the beginning of another -- which it turned out to be, although not in the way anyone expected. I was in town for the match and when the final whistle blew, the Juve crowd filtered bitterly and silently into the parking lots. The great Gigi Buffon, in his last regular season appearance at home, stopped shot after shot but even he couldn't beat Napoli alone.

That night didn't mark the end of a dynasty at all.

Napoli didn't turn its victory into a championship. Juventus hung on for a seventh straight scudetto and then rearranged Italian football by signing Cristiano Ronaldo. Now Buffon is wearing a PSG kit, a deeply strange thing to behold, like Frank Sinatra in bell-bottoms or something, and Ronaldo is preening in black and white.

On Wednesday night with Ronaldo leading the attack against Bologna, the game was over in the first 16 minutes. Watching him play in person remains a joy: he's constantly pressing, making beautiful passes to teammates, trying to get clear for a shot. He creates space and chaos and both of Wednesday's goals resulted from his aggression, even if he didn't actually put either in back of the net himself.

It's also clear that some of his teammates haven't yet gotten accustomed to playing with him. Early in the match, open on the right side of the goal, Ronaldo called for the ball, but Rodrigo Bentancur didn't see him. Ronaldo waved his arms in frustration. He plays a game invisible to many of the players around him, exposing the line between great and very good. Until the end -- fino alla fine -- Ronaldo never stopped attacking. The last thing that happened before the whistle was him firing a shot on Bologna's goal. He's relentless.

The scene at Allianz Stadium Wednesday night was familiar: the stadium DJ's love of Steppenwolf and AC/DC, the roaring and constant songs and chants from the ultras in the Curva Sud. One of the great pleasures of Torino is that it never seems to change. The slow pace of lunch at Da Angelino, where regulars eat ravioli and wild game roasted in Barolo, and the lingering, vermouth-laced cocktail hour in the main square mark time as something to be ignored not feared, as does Juventus holding its place at the top of Serie A.

And yet things feel different this year.

Just six weeks into the season, the rest of Italian football is working to make sense of the Ronaldo signing. It's never been more clear that Juventus will spend whatever it takes to compete with the biggest clubs in the world (they agreed on a transfer fee of €100 million for Ronaldo alone). It's funny. The owners of sports teams work so hard to be private and inscrutable, and they don't seem to realize how their deepest insecurities are on public display.

The Agnelli family, owners Juventus and founders of Fiat, have suffered indignities as the Italian automotive industry has struggled. Juventus has won seven straight league titles but only two European Cups (their last one coming in 1996) while also losing seven finals, the most recent in 2017. It seems obvious that the family's worst fear -- being provincial -- is Juventus' fabulous success in Italy but its continued frustration in Europe. Watching the Agnelli family run the team is like reading a diary. The striving and longing is palpable and when they finally win the Champions League again, it will almost certainly bring more relief than joy.

Juventus seems desperate for others to see them as big as they see themselves.

The European final remains many months away.

The Serie A campaign is the most current and pressing fight.

The morning after the Bologna match, the Juve vs. Napoli battle dominated the front page of the salmon-colored La Gazzetta dello Sport, the headline announcing that early in the season, the championship match had already arrived. Allegri was thinking of what lineup he'd deploy, waiting until Friday's training to make a decision. The first six weeks have been a prelude for this showdown between the top two teams in Serie A.

There's pathos to go around.

Juventus needs to prove that it belongs with the biggest clubs in Europe. Napoli longs to defeat the northern clubs, who have some fans who look down on the poorer southern Italians. This approaching match appears to be part of the global business of sport, but all that is merely a façade for the old and powerful forces on display.

A senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, Wright Thompson is a native of Clarksdale, Mississippi.

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