By Jeremy Klayman

The two title contenders meet this weekend

Will Napoli be the team to break Serie A leaders Juventus’ long unbeaten Serie A streak and establish themselves as potential Scudetto winners?

Clashes between the Azzurri and the Old Lady have provided memorable matches of high intensity and no little skill. This was captured in the season opener as the teams met in the Italian Super Cup played in Beijing.

The game produced six goals, two red cards, extra time and Mazzarri witnessing the Turin giants triumph from the stands.

As a result, the rise of Napoli as Juventus’ main rival has drawn great interest as the teams prepare to meet in Turin this Saturday. Post Calciopoli, only four teams have ended the season in the top two positions (Juventus, AC Milan, Inter and Roma). The prospect of a new challenger has been a refreshing surprise this season.

As is Napoli’s story.

In 2004 the club were bankrupted, and had it not been for the intervention of film producer Aurelio De Laurentiis, Naples would have been without a football club. The renaissance began in Serie C1 (albeit with a new name ‘Napoli Soccer’) and within three short years the movie mogul had restored the original name ‘S.S.C. Napoli’ while overseeing their gradual assent back to Serie A.

The President backed his managers with multimillion pound investment for strengthening the squad, but Edy Reja and then Roberto Donadoni failed live up to the expectations of their ambitious boss. De Laurentiis finally discovered the man he believed would succeed where the previous incumbents had failed. That man was Walter Mazzarri. The former Sampdoria coach introduced a 3-4-2-1 formation which, with the right personnel assembled, has produced a side that is a joy to watch.

After a fantastic Champions League debut, Napoli failed to book a return to Europe’s premier competition, having only secured 5th spot last season. However, they concluded the season in style with an exhilarating performance, defeating Juventus 2-0 to lift the Coppa Italia. Not only did the victory bring their first trophy since the 1990 Super Cup, it also shattered Juventus’ incredible unbeaten run in the entire 2011/2012 season.

In Italy, the Coppa Italia has a similar reputation to the League Cup in England. However, after 22 years starved of success, any trophy can be a symbolic turning point in a club’s fortunes. The added bonus of disposing of a Juventus side that had forgotten how to lose can only give Napoli a new inner belief.

Pre-season saw Ezequiel Lavezzi escape, as he described, the suffocating admiration of the Naples faithful when he moved to free spending PSG for £24 million.  This was a potentially serious blow.  The Partenopei spent £10 million on highly rated Eduardo Vargas as a replacement but the real beneficiary was one of Italy’s most exciting prospects, Lorenzo Insigne.

The young Italian spent two years under the guidance of the controversial Zdenek Zeman, and regular appearances with Foggia and Pescara has allowed his talent blossom. The Neapolitan’s arsenal of tricks, dead ball accuracy, speed and style will at times remind the Napoli faithful of their last great icon. He has already featured in all seven matches, which shows the trust Mazzarri already holds for the diminutive trequartisti.

Mazzarri has been very consistent with his team selections; the same five players have featured in every domestic game with a further three playing six times. The defence has strong experienced centre backs in Paolo Cannavaro and Hugo Campagnaro; an energetic and powerful midfield in the shape of Juan Zuniga, Gokhan Inler and Christian Maggio with Marek Hamsik in a free role; and the formidable forward line of Goran Pandev and Edinson Cavani.

While having made reference to the emerging Insigne and the makeup of Mazzarri’s team, the shining light who has shone brightest for Napoli is Cavani.

Since moving from Palermo the Uruguayan has scored 55 in 77 Serie A matches.  Costing a paltry £14 million shows the shrewdness of Napoli’s project and makes a mockery of other clubs signing policies (Andy Carroll anyone?).  De Laurentiis best signing this season was retaining Cavani. Considering the hitman could easily command a fee upwards of £35 million is testament to his and Napoli’s meteoric rise.

Their visit to the Juventus Stadium in Week 8 represents the Partenopei’s first major test of their Scudetto aspirations.  For most this would be a daunting task.  The Bianconeri stretched their unbeaten domestic run to 46 at Siena and have not lost at home in any competition since Rino Gattuso’s single strike for Milan back in March 2011.

Napoli, though, have shown a mental toughness missing from previous campaigns. The past 3 years have seen Napoli fail to collect more than 11 points at this stage of the season. This time they have recorded 6 wins and a draw and find themselves tied with Juventus on 19. Importantly, their Coppa Italia success will surely breed confidence as well as their form.

Are Napoli ready to make the giant leap and break clear at the top of Serie A? There could well be a shock come 7pm Saturday night.

Advertisements