Juventus v. Napoli: Recapping the blue side of the match (bonus restaurant review)
It was the biggest match of the Serie A season, and probably Napoli's biggest since the days of Maradona. The Neapolitans had the opportunity to cut Juventus' lead from four points to one, and become real contenders for the scudetto this season. My personal excitement for the match was at extreme levels, even though I don't root for either of the teams. The reason for the excitement? This was the first time since 2011-12 where we could see a real battle for Serie A. That year, Milan entered the final two games of the season just one point behind eventual champions Juventus. Napoli had the opportunity here to do the same and cut the deficit to one point with only four matches remaining. Koulibaly's header in the 90th minute claimed a 1-0 victory for Napoli and changed their status from pretenders to contenders.
Song E Napule
To kick off the weekend in anticipation of the big match, I took my eating talents to Song E Napule in New York, NY. I obviously knew it would be a Napolitana restaurant by its name, but I did not know just how much passion the restaurant would have for its beloved Napoli. There are Napoli jerseys, including Maradona's, hanging all over the restaurant. They also sprinkled in a few hats that said "Juve S**T," obviously gearing up for the huge match and of course a picture of Diego himself right above the pizza oven. Now, while I have no allegiance to either side in terms of football, I do have a preference for Neapolitan food over cuisine from Turin (sorry Juve fans). The restaurant was delicious. We ordered Scialatelli alla Scarpariello, homemade linguine with a cherry tomato sauce & arugula, as well as Gnocchi Sorrentina, PIzza Margherita and of course a Nutella PIzza. The food and atmosphere were all 10/10 and I highly recommend the restaurant to anybody in New York looking for authentic Italian food.
Now that we've worked up an appetite, let's move onto the actual match. Ciro, the owner and chef of Song E Napule, was feeling very confident. When I asked him if Napoli would win on Sunday, he responded sternly, "Of Course."
Sarri's approach and Napoli's performance
Sarri was willing to go down with his style, that's for sure. He did not change anything for this match as he went with his usual starting eleven, ignoring the calls to start Milik and play in a 4-2-3-1. Napoli played brilliantly in the match. They kept possession for the whole game, pressed Juve high and made it very uncomfortable for the bianconeri to play the ball out of their own half. In fact, there were countless times when Juve tried to play the ball out of their half, but often gave it right back to the partenopei by either kicking it out of bounds or just losing possession. They kept trying to attack wave after wave but could not get into the box and break Juventus down. Juventus did well to soak up the pressure and try to escape with a very important point, however, they fell at the end to a corner kick and Koulibaly's header.
Napoli's key and best player throughout the match
It is a no brainer that the answer is Koulibaly. He has all of the tools to be one of the best defenders in the world and he showcased them on Sunday evening. He was there to shut down the Juventus attack anytime Juventus had even a little slither of hope. His combination of strength and pace were too much for the Juve attack. On top of his stalwart defensive performance, he also scored off of the corner with a great athletic header passed Buffon. His determination set the tone for his entire team on Sunday.
How important of a win this was for Napoli
The short answer: huge. If they would have lost it would have all but sealed the scudetto in Juve's favor. The bianconeri gave Napoli a sense of belief by drawing Crotone midweek, so it was important for them to snatch a victory. A draw between the teams wouldn't have been as bad as a loss, but it still would have kept enough distance between the two where Juventus could march on and win the championship. The victory, however, closes the gap significantly and puts a lot of pressure on Juventus, who have to play Inter away this weekend and can't afford any slip-up. This was Napoli's most important Serie A victory since the days of Maradona.
The upper-hand in the last four matches goes to...
You have to say Juventus is still the favorites to win, although by a much closer margin. They do have the lead and have the experience. They have been in these must win types of matches through the years, and certainly will be able to handle the pressure. The thing that goes against Juve is the schedule. They have to play Inter away this weekend, who are also in a fight for a top four finish, so that will not be an easy match. On top of that, Napoli also has a tough fixture away to Fiorentina but they have the advantage of playing the day after Juventus. If Juve tie or lose to Inter, Napoli will be fired up to go and take three points from Florence to try and control the race. After these matches, Juventus has to play Bologna, Roma (away) and Verona, while Napoli play Torino, Sampdoria (away) and Crotone. While Juventus has the tougher schedule, Napoli's is not a walk in the park. While Juventus has the experience and one point advantage, Napoli has the determination and the passionate city support that could push them over the edge.
The key thing is we have a title race in Serie A, and its the only one in the major European leagues at the moment. It is an exciting time and the race looks to be coming down to the wire. If you learned nothing about Italian football from this article, at least take my advice and try the restaurant...
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