Monday, May 21, 2012
Napoli's night to remember
Adam Digby, Stadio Olimpico
With a combination of good fortune and great play, they did what no other club has managed to this season and win against recently-crowned Serie A Champions Juventus. Unbeaten in all competitions, the Turin giants finally succumbed in this, the Italian Cup Final, unable to thwart the advances of Napoli's 'Three Tenors'. It was a game which almost perfectly encapsulated everything these two teams have come to represent in a campaign from which both emerge with great credit.
The pair have, along with others such as Roma, Catania and the remarkable Udinese, finally put an end to the stereotypically negative views of Calcio as boring, defensive and dated. Each looked to impose their own game plan on a match which, at times, became a battle of wills. It was fought out between two very different approaches as the similarities between them seemingly begin and end with the fact they utilised a back three when the game kicked off.
Juventus, as they have in each and every one of those 43 unbeaten games, dominated possession and passed the ball with purpose and intent. Antonio Conte has often been praised for his determination and work ethic, both as a player and a coach, but since moving to the bench his tactical versatility is arguably his sides' greatest weapon. Able to switch formations at a moment's notice, he deployed a 3-5-2 here which stifled their opponents and denied them space. His use of Marcelo Estigarribia on the left flank completely nullified the threat of Christian Maggio whose crosses are a constant source of chances for Napoli.
It was Juve's most glaring weakness which came to the fore however, the clear absence of a genuine goalscorer costing them dearly in the final third. Time and again promising moves would come to an abrupt halt at the feet of Marco Borriello, a player far below the standard needed if this team is to do as Napoli have this term and make an impression on the Champions League. Mirko Vu
ini remains an inconsistent enigma and Alessandro Matri appears to have lost the faith of the coach along with his scoring touch, given that he last found the net in February and made just one start in the last two months of the season.
With ten goals he was the team's leading goalscorer and someone capable of double that return must be added this summer if La Repubblica's Gianni Mura is to be proven correct in his view that Juventus are 'a perfect team for Europe'. He went on to call them 'a young team that has matured quickly' but they could be forgiven for looking at the man leading the line for Napoli here and wondering 'what if?' In Edinson Cavani, Napoli have a player who possesses all those characteristics in abundance and his penalty to open the scoring marked his 66th goal in 94 appearances and makes him top scorer in this season's Coppa Italia.
Twenty minutes later, having spent the intervening period under sustained pressure, Napoli broke out in a trademark counter attack, Goran Pandev slipping the ball to Marek Hamsik who beat Marco Storari with a neat finish. Juventus can rightly question why they were denied a clear penalty for a foul on Claudio Marchisio - which may also have seen a red card for Salvatore Aronica - and a wrongly judged offside decision against Alessandro Del Piero but with Ezequiel Lavezzi winning the penalty, all three attacking stars made key contributions to a win which means so much to a club and city.
Napoli earned promotion to Serie A back in 2007 alongside Juventus but, unlike the stop-start nature of the Turin side, they have made steady progress in the five years since then culminating in this, their first trophy win in some 22 years. Yet while Juve's Scudetto triumph is seen as, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, merely the 'end of the beginning' of a new period of dominance for the Bianconeri, it is hard to say the same of this victory. With mounting speculation linking Cavani and Lavezzi with moves away, the club's cup win could well mark the end of an era.
One player we seem to have definitely seen the last of is Juve captain Del Piero, the club calling time on his distinguished 19-year career and honouring him with a commemorative patch on their shirts here. He summed up both this game and the season perfectly as he told Sky Italia: "We haven't put the cherry on top, but we've taken home that cake in any case." Seeing a squad list without him for the first time since 1992 is almost unfathomable but with a title to defend, Champions League football and - thanks to Torino securing promotion earlier on Sunday - a return of the Turin derby, the club's supporters have plenty to occupy their minds.
Even if they manage to hold on to their own stars, Napoli too could steal an admiring glance at their opponent in this final, the adaptability of Juve perhaps the one ingredient preventing this team becoming a real threat to more established clubs at home and abroad. As Chelsea proved in their Champions League Last 16 tie, prevent those lightening raids and attack the back three with real intent and Napoli have no plan B.
Mazzarri has worked wonders to bring them this far but is limited by his strict adherence to the 3-4-2-1 formation and, much like Cavani would complete Juventus, a more flexible coach could really take them on from here. For now they deserve nothing but praise however and the victory parade when they return to Naples will be a sight to behold.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Ezequiel Lavezzi. While the other two Tenors may have found their name on the scoresheet, it is not difficult to argue that Napoli would be nowhere near as effective without their Argentine star, so often the straw that stirs the drink. He may not have been fully fit but his runs, touch and invention were at the heart of everything positive from the Partenopei here while his determined pressing of Juve's back three denied them time and space to play out from the back.
NAPOLI VERDICT: Not as thrilling to watch as they usually have been, their win is both justification of their game-plan and deserved reward for a club among the best run on the peninsula. Proving you can be profitable and victorious at the same time, owner Aurelio De Laurentiis must once again make the right decisions this summer in terms of both playing personnel and his coach. If he is able to negotiate those choices and see his side emerge stronger at the start of next season, Napoli will challenge the established order once more.
JUVENTUS VERDICT: As perfect as the double would have been, ending 2011-12 with their first defeat is likely to drive Conte even harder for next term which is a frightening prospect for everyone, including his own players. With the future of outcasts like Eljero Elia and Milos Krasic - plus numerous on loan players - to be resolved, the squad needs minor tweaks and that elusive 20-goal-a-season striker if Europe is to once again fear the Old Lady.
MAZZARRI VERDICT: The Napoli coach spoke for everyone when he told RAI Sport: "I am thrilled, it seemed unthinkable to beat Juventus this season. The entire team has done something extraordinary in the last three years, this is an exceptional group that has now been rewarded."