October 28th. That was the last time the Bianconeri lost a match, and looking back on things, it appears that was the turning point for Massimiliano Allegri’s side. Since then, La Vecchia Signora have come roaring back to life, and including their recent 2-0 win over Frosinone, they now have won 14 consecutive matches. This is a new club record, bettering the 12 set under Antonio Conte during the 2013/2014 season and indeed is even more impressive if one takes into account their dismal start to this season.
Against Frosinone, it was not the easiest three points for the Bianconeri, who were facing a team who put all ten men behind the ball in a desperate attempt to scrape by with a draw. But in a true mark of champions, the Turin giants were finally able to overpower the Serie A debutants thanks to goals from Paulo Dybala and Juan Cuadrado. And now, they have gone from struggling to break out of the top ten to being in serious contention to make it a fifth straight league title for the second time in their glittering history.
As any Serie A fan knows, key to Juve’s revival over the past few seasons under Antonio Conte and now under Allegri has been their excellent team spirit. Unlike some other teams, which are really more a group of individuals as opposed to an actual cohesive unit, the Bianconeri truly do rely on each and every single member of the squad to do his part in order for the collective to succeed. Still, there are two players whose contributions have garnered quite a bit of attention: Paul Pogba and the aforementioned Dybala.
Between Dybala and Pogba, they have been directly involved in an impressive 31 out of Juve’s 45 goals this season. That breaks down to 13 goals and eight assists for the former, and five goals and five assists for the latter. Not a bad output for a pair of players who are not even 25 years of age and are playing for one of the biggest clubs in Europe.
But it’s not just the work of Dybala and Pogba which has contributed to the team’s overall dramatic improvement. With just 15 goals conceded, Juventus have the best defense in the league – an impressive fact considering that they did not win their first match until a 2-0 result against Genoa in round four. In their past 14 wins, the Bianconeri have only conceded on five occasions – the last of which was during their 2-1 win over Sampdoria on January 10th, meaning that Saturday’s hosts have now gone over 450 minutes of game-time sans conceding a single goal.
Juve’s stern back-line will face their toughest test to date as Napoli, bolstered by the red-hot Gonzalo Higuain boast the strongest attack in the division. Like their upcoming opponents, the Partenopei had to battle hard to secure all three points against yet another relegation-threatened side: Carpi. Like Allegri’s squad, Maurizio Sarri’s men have also established a new club record for wins, with their eighth victory bettering the seven achieved during the 1987/88 campaign. And like La Vecchia Signora, they had to turn to their clutch man in order to finally break down the Biancorossi and to stay ahead of the chasing pack.
Higuain’s 24 goals and two assists have arguably made him the go-to man for Napoli this season, and the ex-Real Madrid striker is looking like a prime contender to clinch the Capocannoniere title. And given that Napoli have scored 53 goals to date, the Argentinian has thus been instrumental in nearly 50 per cent of the team’s attacking output over the past 24 rounds.
But like his compatriot Dybala, Higuain also has a “partner in crime”, with Lorenzo Insigne enjoying his best season to date. The diminutive attacker, who has spent all but three seasons of his young career with his hometown club, has chipped in with 10 goals and 10 assists. Adding those numbers up comes out to a total of 34 goals plus a dozen assists.
To put it simply, Insigne and Higain alone have contributed to 46 goals, meaning that they alone are responsible for more goals than any of the other 19 teams in the league, including upcoming opponents Juventus. And Napoli are certainly no slouch defensively. In total, they have conceded just 19 goals, kept 11 clean sheets, and Kalidou Koulibaly – who had a rough time last campaign – has been singled out for praise for some fantastic showings in the center of defense. Nonetheless, he and the rest of Sarri’s troops will obviously have to be at their best if they wish to keep Juventus from finding the back of the net.
Saturday’s match-up has all the perfect ingredients for a titanic clash. The best attack versus the best defense. The north versus the south. The reigning Scudetto champions versus the long-term aspirants. The rising star Dybala versus the seasoned Higuain. And let’s not forget those impressive winning streaks, 14 for the hosts, eight for the visitors.
At the final whistle, someone’s winning streak will come to an end. That is the unfortunate part of football, as only one team can be the victors. Alternatively, we could see both have to settle for a draw, but of course, fans will not want to have that happen. They will want to see someone celebrating at the final whistle whilst the other trudges off the pitch in disappointment.
Will it be Juventus or Napoli on top of the table? We will know the answer after 90 minutes. But one thing is certain: whoever wins could see the Scudetto tide firmly swing in their favor, whilst the loser could be facing both a tough psychological and physical battle to get back into the most closely contested race in recent seasons.