Despite very different starts to their seasons, Juventus and Napoli return from the winter break on Thursday separated by just two places and five points in the Serie A standings.
While fifth-placed Juve prepare to renew the clubs’ rivalry having won five of their last six games in all competitions, their southern counterparts were beaten in three of their last five – continuing their descent of the table to third.
Following a tumultuous opening to their 2021-22 campaign, when they often looked bereft of ideas, Juventus made the most of a friendly fixture list before the mid-season interval by ending the year on an unbeaten run of six successive matches – conceding only twice in the process.
The Bianconeri’s wins during December came at the expense of Calcio’s lesser lights, such as Genoa, Bologna and Cagliari – the latter of whom were dispatched 2-0 thanks to goals from Moise Kean and Federico Bernardeschi.
Not only did Max Allegri manage to steer his stalling side back on track in Serie A, as they narrowed a once yawning gap to fourth place down to a manageable four points, but he oversaw their qualification for the Champions League last 16, where they will meet Villarreal.
However, before their unlikely quest for continental glory resumes, the 36-times Scudetto winners must put together a more convincing run of results against some of the top teams on the Italian peninsula.
After Napoli’s visit in midweek, they are set to meet Roma, Atalanta, Milan in the course of the next month – not to mention a Coppa Italia tie with Sampdoria and the Supercoppa versus Inter.
Allegri’s men sit 12 points behind the league leaders in Serie A, largely as a result of a lack of incision in the final third. Indeed, Juventus are the joint lowest-scoring team in the top half of the table – even 13th-placed Sassuolo have netted more – but their coach expects no major signings will be made during January due to financial restrictions at the club.
In fact, misfiring striker Alvaro Morata may even be on his way out of Turin in the coming weeks, but would dearly love to make an impact on Thursday, as Juve take on a side they have lost to in three of their last four meetings.
Very little has gone right for Napoli since suffering their first league defeat in late November, against Inter – the side who would ultimately overtake them to be crowned Campioni d’Inverno (‘Winter Champions’).
Having started the season under new management, the Partenopei were in inspired form as they racked up 10 league wins before October was out, giving cause to dream of a first Scudetto in decades.
However, in the intervening period, Luciano Spalletti’s men have been decimated by injuries to several integral cogs in their well-oiled machine – which had barely conceded a goal on the way to the summit of Serie A – and the wheels were starting to come off when the winter break paused Calcio for the festive period.
Four losses came in quick succession, as the setback against Inter was followed by defeats to Atalanta, surprise package Empoli and – most frustratingly – a Spezia side which had picked up just two points from their previous six games and slumped out of the Coppa Italia to Serie B opposition.
While they did also progress in the Europa League thanks to a dramatic win over Leicester City – their reward being a glamour tie against fallen giants Barcelona next month – and managed to beat Milan in a resolute performance at San Siro, events may have gone from bad to worse over the break.
Inspirational captain Lorenzo Insigne recently signalled his departure – which will come in the summer, when he makes the intriguing switch to MLS club Toronto – and a COVID-19 outbreak at the club has this week afflicted several squad members and Spalletti himself.
Therefore, with their coach absent and as many as eight players missing through illness or at the Africa Nations Cup, Napoli must take on their bitterest rivals of all – having already lost nine of their 10 trips to the Allianz Stadium since it opened.
Juventus Serie A form:
Juventus form (all competitions):
Napoli Serie A form:
Napoli form (all competitions):
We say: Juventus 1-0 Napoli
Two of the top three defensive sides in Serie A go head-to-head on Thursday, so even with a number of men missing at the back for both teams, there is likely to be little to choose between them.
Home advantage bestows a psychological edge to Juve, as they routinely take points off Napoli at their headquarters, and the hosts’ squad is more able to withstand the absences afflicting this fiercely-fought contest.