Napoli-Juve duel is the most competitive in Europe
By ANDREW DAMPF
Feb. 08, 2018
ROME (AP) — North and South.
The most successful club in Serie A history and one that hasn't won the title in nearly three decades.
The most consistent team and the most spectacular one.
An extremely deep squad and one that uses only 12-13 players and can't afford injuries.
The contrasts between six-time defending champion Juventus and league leader Napoli are endless.
Yet their difference in the standings is just one point — making Serie A by far the most competitive of Europe's five major domestic leagues.
Bayern Munich has virtually wrapped up another Bundesliga with an 18-point lead over Bayer Leverkusen. Manchester City has a 13-point advantage over Manchester United in England, and Barcelona and Paris Saint-German have comfortable leads in the Spanish and French leagues, too.
Napoli and Juventus, meanwhile, have been separated by one point for more than two months.
"The winner will be the one who doesn't blink first," said Corrado Ferlaino, Napoli's president during its 1987 and 1990 title runs, when Diego Maradona was the club star. "I'm convinced that whoever makes the first mistake will see the other team run away irretrievably."
Aurelio De Laurentiis, the current Napoli president and also a film producer, seems more concerned that power-broking could decide the title.
"Juve belongs to the most powerful family in Italy for the last 100 years," De Laurentiis said last week, referring to the Agnellis of Fiat fame.
"Juve has 3-400 employees and we have about 60. Their budget is three times as big as ours. But we're right there with them."
Juventus drew to within one point in early December after winning at Napoli 1-0, with a goal from none other than former Napoli striker Gonzalo Higuain. The teams don't meet again until April 22, five rounds before the end of the season.
"In the end, the better team will win," Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said ahead of meeting Fiorentina on Friday. "This isn't the Champions League, where it helps to have some luck. All the other chatter should remain inside the coffee bar."
Injuries could play a key role.
Juventus midfielder Blaise Matuidi will be out for up to a month after tearing a leg muscle last weekend. But the Turin club has so many options that it has already overcome injuries or drops in form by top players such as Paulo Dybala and Higuain.
When Huguain was struggling at the start of the season, Mario Mandzukic stepped up. With Dybala currently out, Federico Bernardeschi has shown off his abilities. Likewise, Claudio Marchisio is an able replacement for Matuidi.
Not so at Napoli.
There was a collective gasp when the club top scorer Dries Mertens limped off with a twisted left ankle last weekend. The Belgium international is expected to play against visiting Lazio on Saturday even though his fitness remains questionable.
With Arkadiusz Milik still working his way back from a long-term injury, Napoli has no replacement for Mertens at center forward.
Making matters more complicated, Napoli has had trouble attracting and holding onto players in the transfer market.
Rising Bologna forward Simone Verdi made a very public rejection of Napoli's transfer offer last month. Then this week Ajax's Amin Younes indicated he doesn't intend to honor his transfer to Napoli, which is due to start in July.
There's also a long list of star players who have left Napoli in recent years.
Higuain resurrected his career by scoring 36 goals to break a 66-year-old Serie A record at Napoli in 2015-16, then broke fans' hearts by transferring to Juventus for an Italian-record 90 million euros ($100 million).
Before Higuain, it was Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi who made high-profile departures to PSG.
Whether it's Napoli's association with crime and garbage or the city's fanaticism over its team, many footballers get turned off.
"A lot of people think we're a minor city and squad," De Laurentiis said. "If we win the scudetto (title), I want to award Neapolitans with an entire year of celebrations. They will have earned it."
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