The game should have been played six months and two days ago, when the Azzurri received a travel ban by the local health authority in Naples and failed to show up in Turin.
They had played against Genoa the previous weekend, but a COVID outbreak hit the Grifone after their meeting. Genoa registered over 20 cases among players and staff members in a week and Napoli had Piotr Zielinski and Eljif Elmas positive for COVID. The panic of a similar cluster was understandable.
They were initially given a 3-0 defeat by default and docked a point, but the CONI Collegio di Garanzia overturned the decision on the third appeal and rescheduled the match.
Ironically, Juventus had two players positive for COVID this time around: Leonardo Bonucci and Federico Bernardeschi. They had contracted the virus while on international duty with Italy, along with six more fellow Azzurri and several staff members.
Juventus hadn’t approached the game in the best possible way with a 2-2 draw in the Turin derby on Saturday, while Napoli had four wins from the previous five games.
Pirlo was (and probably still is) on the brink, with Italian media reporting the Bianconeri were ready to sack him if he had lost against his old friend Gennaro Gattuso.
The former ‘Maestro’ did feel the pressure, but admitted Juventus were ready to fight for a target they usually already have in their pocket by this time of the season: a top-four spot.
The Juventus coach picked Gigi Buffon in place of Wojciech Szczęsny, whose mistakes cost two goals against Torino last week.
Paulo Dybala returned to action for the first time in three months. It was first injury and then disciplinary action, as La Joya, Weston McKennie and Arthur attended a party organised by the American midfielder a few days prior the Derby della Mole last week, breaking lockdown rules.
Perhaps, it’s no coincidence both Dybala and Buffon played a crucial role for Juventus in today’s win.
The Old Lady dominated the first half, created several goal-scoring opportunities and netted one with Cristiano Ronaldo after the Portuguese star had missed an open goal minutes earlier.
Federico Chiesa was decisive too, especially with his assist for CR7, and it’s curious to notice the Italy international has played Matchday 3 with both Fiorentina and Juventus this season, as his game against Sampdoria on October 4 was his last one in a Viola shirt.
Juventus pressed high up the pitch and didn’t give Napoli any chance to breathe.
The Azzurri did create some trouble for the Bianconeri, especially with some exquisite moves from Piotr Zielinski, who has been by far their best player this season.
The Poland international played between the lines and it wasn’t always easy for Juventus defenders and midfielders to read his movements.
He also deserved a penalty kick for an Alex Sandro foul at the end of the first half, but Juventus had also been denied one for a reckless Chucky Lozano challenge on Chiesa, leaving Juventus directors unimpressed.
Dybala entered the pitch in the second half and took four minutes to score his first goal in 2021 and double Juve’s lead.
Gattuso threw all his attacking players on the pitch, subbing off a disappointing Dries Mertens. Napoli pushed, but could not find a way through until Giorgio Chiellini fouled Victor Osimhen inside the Juventus box with three minutes remaining. Lorenzo Insigne took his third penalty kick against Juventus in as many competitive games this season, but although he converted, it was too late for Napoli to take a point home.
Juventus proved to be the best side and deserved to seal the win. Despite all their problems, they seem a more solid team than the Azzurri, but the race for a top-four spot is not yet over.
Juventus now sit third in the table, one point above Atalanta and three above Napoli, but must still face Inter and Milan at home, and Atalanta away.
They also never won more than three Serie A games in a row this season, which says a lot about their fragility and inability to remain focused for an entire match.
Napoli, on the other hand, know their destiny is no longer in their hands.
They can still finish in the top four and seem to have a more accessible fixture list than Juventus, with home games against Inter and Lazio that, on paper, are the most challenging clashes until the end of the season.
There is clearly no more room for mistakes, but Gattuso can once again rely on a full-strength attack and is aware his side can recover two or three points in the last nine games.
They must believe in themselves and never give up in a season where anything can still happen.
They will need the same strength and passion of a fan who travelled from Genoa to Turin to find himself alone, supporting his side from outside the Allianz Stadium gates, even after both team busses had arrived.
Inside the stadium, Juventus made an important step towards their minimum target in a highly disappointing season. They handled the pressure against Napoli, but need more of the same in the final nine games of the season.