Can Napoli use Juventus victory as a catalyst?
Background image: Napuliker, CC BY 3.0
Napoli’s once top-of-the-table encounter with Juventus had assumed the tag of just another game as the reigning Champions visited the Stadio Sao Paolo. The reason for that is not far-fetched. Gli Azzurri has taken several steps backwards from their position in recent seasons. Now sitting uncomfortably in mid-table, club president Aurelio De Laurentiis was probably left wondering if he did not make a huge mistake by firing Carlo Ancelotti.
However, could the 2-1 victory against Juventus spark the turning of the tide?
The team was already struggling under Ancelotti at the beginning of the season. But it has been in a free fall since the experienced gaffer was relieved of his duties. New boss Gennaro Gattuso has not been able to inspire the players to rediscover the form that saw them give the Bianconerri a run for their money in the past few seasons.
A series of damaging defeats has threatened not only the club’s title ambitions but even that of playing in Europe. For instance, before Juventus came to town the team had lost the previous three consecutive league games to Inter, Fiorentina and Lazio respectively. Unfortunately, Inter and Lazio are direct rivals for the top four. That Napoli's fall has coincided with their rise rubs salt into the wound for the club's supporters.
Having become accustomed to playing in the Champions League, it’s unlikely the team will make it to the competition next term. That's the case, unless the surprise victory over Maurizio Sarri’s team becomes a catalyst. No doubt, it's the kind of result that can galvanise a team to turn a corner. More than anything, the win will give the players confidence and belief they can salvage something from the remainder of the campaign.
But sitting 10th on the league table at the moment with 27 points, 12 behind fourth-placed Roma, it's difficult to see how the team can make it to the Champions League.
As already stated, the other teams have made progress in the time Napoli has regressed. The biggest gainers have been Lazio. Simone Inzaghi's team has unseated Atalanta as the surprise package of the season. Few, if any, gave the Whites and Sky Blues a chance to make it to the Champions League much less contend for the title this term.
But sitting third in the table with 46 points, six behind league leaders Juventus, the Rome-based side cannot be ruled out of the title race. With a game in hand over the reigning champions that's a real possibility. Having beaten the serial winners 3-1 back-to-back in their last two meetings, beating them to the Scudetto will provide the biggest satisfaction. Napoli can forget about catching up with any of the top three teams based on their form this season.
The battle will be with Roma and Atalanta who are placed fourth and fifth. But even these teams have been unrelenting. In the end, Gattuso may have a better chance of going for Europa League qualification. Cagliari, Parma and AC Milan who are just above Napoli are all on 31 points. Displacing any of them to sixth place would be the more realistic goal. But the biggest obstacle will be Milan. The team has been reinvigorated after the acquisition of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
But Gattuso's team is loaded with enough quality to win the battle. Lorenzo Insigne and Piotr Zielinski were instrumental in downing Juventus. The duo, alongside Jose Callejon up front, provide strong firepower. At the back, the side parades two of the best centre-backs in world football. Kalidou Koulibaly and Kostas Manolas can walk into any top team in Europe. At their best, they can provide a solid base for the team.
It's now Gattuso's job to get the best from them and the team as a whole. That includes the goalkeepers whose high-profile errors have cost the team valuable points in recent games. Once everything is in place, the Naples-based side can push for European football even if it means settling for a Europa League berth.