Doesn’t it seem like an age since Federico Bernardeschi topped off his fine end to 2021 with the game-sealer in a 2-0 victory over Cagliari on December 21?!
Bernardeschi’s strike across Alessio Cragno ended a goal drought that exceeded 500 days, all while handing Juventus their fourth win in five Serie A meetings to bring the calendar year to a close. The Bianconeri’s impressive run in December left them fifth in the table and within striking distance of the league’s top four.
The Scudetto is all but gone. A superb Inter Milan side, who have seemingly got even better despite their mass exodus in the summer, hold a 12-point advantage over their Derby d’Italia rivals and that’s a lead you expect them to extend in the second half of the season. Thus, securing a Champions League spot for the 2022/23 campaign has to be Juve’s primary goal this term, and they’ve been blessed with a prime opportunity at the beginning of 2022 to make inroads on the rivals ahead of them.
Napoli looked like a genuine Scudetto challenger this season
On Thursday night, Juventus take on Napoli in their opening game of the calendar year. For much of the first half of the season, they were the pace-setters at the top.
Luciano Spalletti had built on Gennaro Gattuso’s good work in Naples to establish a well-balanced and cohesive unit. They’re a side that commits plenty of bodies to the build-up phase, one that can play through teams via efficient up-back-and-through passing patterns and control contests thanks to their security in possession. Napoli average the highest average attacking sequence time (12.07 seconds) this season and lead the league in ‘build-up attacks’ (77), defined as “the number of open play sequences that contain ten or more passes and either ends in a shot or has at least one touch in the box.”
Spalletti had found his ideal combination of personnel in the 4-3-3 and for so long, they looked like a genuine Scudetto challenger this term.
But then, the injuries struck. Victor Osimhen: cheekbone. Lorenzo Insigne: calf. Kalidou Koulibaly: thigh. Fabian Ruiz: groin. Within a blink of an eye, Napoli had lost their primary goal threat, chief creator, elegant controller and enforcer in defence. The impact was immediate as they lost three of their remaining four Serie A games to close out 2021, including two 1-0 home defeats to Spezia and Empoli.
Juventus must take advantage of a depleted Napoli on Thursday night
Napoli’s availability crisis has worsened at the start of 2022 to the point where the clash against Juventus is at “serious risk” of postponement. Elif Elmas, Hirving Lozano and Osimhen have tested positive for COVID-19 (with more positive tests expected), while Koulibaly, Adam Ounas and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa will be absent due to their commitment to the African Cup of Nations.
As a result, Juventus will be facing up against an incredibly depleted Napoli side on Thursday (should the game go ahead). While Spalletti should be able to muster a fairly strong starting XI, he has close to nothing to work with from a depth perspective. His bench on Thursday is expected to be filled with youngsters.
Thus, the Bianconeri must take full advantage. The visitors will be competitive, however, and the potential returns of Insigne and Fabian Ruiz are massive boosts. The former will provide his distinct threat from the left-half space, while the latter adds security to Napoli’s build-up and aids ball-retention. The midfielder’s threat from distance can’t be overlooked either.
Still, the Neapolitans’ absences are more than compromising. Their transition threat is reduced considerably without Osimhen, while the defence without Koulibaly is incomparable to a backline led by the Senegalese hero.
How will Massimiliano Allegri help Juventus to victory?
Despite their losses, I have no doubts that Napoli will attempt to dominate possession on Thursday and Juventus boss Massimiliano Allegri will be happy to oblige. This season, Juve have taken a pragmatic approach to the ‘big’ games by blocking space in a mid/low 4-4-2 block and counter-attacking through the speed of Federico Chiesa, guile of Paulo Dybala and in-behind threat of Alvaro Morata.
I expect that to be the case on Thursday, although the Bianconeri might enjoy some sustained spells of possession. Napoli aren’t revered for their high press – their 130 ‘high turnovers’ is below Juve’s 144 and ranks 12th in Serie A – so the hosts should be able to get their foot on the ball and build attacks from the back. Where the visitors do excel, however, is in counter-pressing situations and immediately after the ball is lost, in both phases. They’re quick to transition with the ball, and they’re swift to recover into their settled defensive shape once they lose possession themselves. Thus, Juve will have to be incredibly efficient if they’re to have success in attacking transition on Thursday.
Alas, Napoli are a tough match-up for Juventus from a tactical perspective and there’s no doubting that the Bianconeri won’t be able to saunter to victory despite the visitors’ woes. They proved in their 1-0 away victory at AC Milan before the winter break that they can still compete with the very best in Serie A without their stars.
But, the recent exacerbation of their availability crisis means that nothing but three points should be expected for a rejuvenated Juve this week. For Allegri’s side, this is a brilliant chance to make inroads on a likely top-four rival and victory on Thursday would cut the deficit to just two points between the two sides.