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How Napoli caught up with Juventus

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As each match day passes, the ideas we have about players, squads, managers and teams become more and more assertive. Match day one in Calcio didn’t do much in the way of shaking our pre-season assertions, as Napoli, Juve, Inter, Milan and Roma all won.

The 2017/18 Serie A season is shaping up to be the most interesting since 2011/12, when Juventus piped Milan to the title. For the first time in years, it looks like there’s going to be a legitimately close race for supremacy in Italy.

So, who will reign supreme? It’s become a bit fashionable on social media to tip Napoli to win the Scudetto, some Milan fans are still riding high on the ecstasy of their transfer window, tipping themselves to be crowned in May and of course it would be foolish to count out Juventus.

However, of the non-Juventus teams, there’s one that stands out from the rest – Napoli.

Just how did they gain ground on Juventus? By doing absolutely nothing. Only one team has outperformed Juventus on expected goals difference (xGD) in the past two seasons – Napoli. In Sarri’s first season, they fell nine points behind Juventus, although the race was a lot closer than the points total suggested. Last season, Napoli broke a club points record and finished five points behind the Bianconeri.

Heading into the summer transfer window, the southern club were in a difficult position. Considering their financial capabilities, they couldn’t realistically upgrade any of their starting players considering their calibres. Sarri summed it best;

So the target for summer becomes don’t lose any key players, and they never really came close to losing any. Credit has to go to Aurelio de Laurentiis, the infamous film producer may be a bit on the crazy side, but he realises how close this group is to a first Scudetto since 1990, and he isn’t cashing in on any players whilst ruining his chances in the process.

With key players off limits to all potential buyers, the focus was then on adding depth to a team that’s going to be featuring heavily in three competitions and playing 50+ games. Mario Rui and Maurizio Sarri are familiar with each other from their Empoli days, and the Portuguese left-back will provide some needed depth behind Faozi Ghoulam.

Offensive depth was also a priority, despite missing out on Alex Berenguer to Torino early in the summer, Napoli swooped for Adam Ounas from Bordeaux. The French winger is an interesting signing, Sarri has worked with a forward who is essentially a blank slate before, and he adds some needed depth and versatility to a front line who have played an absurd amount of minutes.

On the topic of rotation, this could potentially make or break Napoli’s season. Sarri has often steered away from rotating during the season, in 15/16, 12 senior players featured in 800 or more league minutes. That’s ridiculously draining on a team that has a high tempo style of play, not to mention the Italian also played his strongest XI in their Europa League matches. It’s no surprise Napoli burnt out post-February.

NAPLES, ITALY – Sarri and Allegri. Frenemies? (Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images)

However, there needs to be words spoken about Juventus. This has been the club’s worst summer for a number of years, granted, we haven’t seen how the transfers will pan out, but it doesn’t look pretty.

The loss of Leonardo Bonucci to Milan is the main arrow to Juventus’ knee. The Italian has a serious claim for ‘best defender in the world’ and we’re about to see how Juventus’ defensive system copes without Bonucci. It’s not like they will suddenly be chumps, but Juventus’ defensive has been downgraded.

This is key because it’s the defense that has separated Juve and Napoli. If The Old Lady suffer defensively, the Scudetto could be heading down south. This team was built up from the defense and they’re relied on heavily. Allegri appears to be making the transition into a more offensive team, but that’s yet another question mark hanging above their heads.

There are a ton of question marks over Juventus’ signings. Douglas Costa, Federico Bernadeschi and Blaise Matuidi all have varying degrees of doubt surrounding their ability to fit into and perform in this Juventus squad. The narrowed gap comes down to this – Juventus have doubts but we know what we’re getting with Napoli. Consistency might be the most valuable trait in this transfer market.

There’s little doubt in anyone’s mind that Napoli have closed the gap on Juventus. However, it’d be foolish to count out serial winners such as Allegri’s side. For once, Napoli may be in the ascendency. If they avoid major injuries, whilst Sarri rotates to keep players fresh, and they perform as expected, there’s no reason Napoli can’t better their points total from last season.

86 points is enough for a title win. What has let Napoli down in the previous two campaigns is just how good Juve have been. If Juventus slip up 5+ points, which is entirely possible considering the absence of Bonucci, and the question marks over supposed key signings such as Douglas Costa, it could make for the best Scudetto race since the turn of the century.

Whatever happens, it gon’ be fun.

@ItalianFD

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