Straight from the dark heart of Italy
Juventus took one giant leap towards retaining the Serie A title with their 1-1 draw at Napoli, doing nothing more than they have done all season; refusing to be intimidated on or off the pitch.
The champions knew they were in for a hostile night at the San Paolo before they even arrived at the stadium. The team coach was pelted with eggs and reportedly had a window smashed by a brick, which landed near a presumably startled Kwadwo Asamoah.
The unofficial welcoming party had begun the day before, when the visitors had been bombarded with more dairy products and a hail of verbal abuse. The bile was aimed primarily towards Antonio Conte and Claudio Marchisio, who had both made their dislike of the Naples side clear in the run-up to the match.
The atmosphere had been fractious all week - no surprise given the match represented a genuine opportunity for Napoli to reopen the title race.
Flares had been lit behind the goal in a stunningly choreographed depiction of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, but it was Juve who were overflowing with joy ten minutes in. Giorgio Chiellini rose in the area to head home Andrea Pirlo’s pinpoint cross from the left to give the visitors an early lead.
The early away dominance set the stage for what became an ever-more physical contest, one which saw Chiellini and Edinson Cavani spend the majority of the match grappling with each other in their own private wrestling contest.
It was a bruising match-up and as their rancor grew the Juve defender took to pulling the Uruguayan’s locks, only for the striker to retaliate with a well-aimed elbow to his assailant’s jaw. The fifth official spotted the second incident but referee Daniele Orsato decided that a yellow card for Cavani would suffice in cooling tempers.
Chiellini, who has had his nose fractured on five occasions, relished the head-to-head, while Cavani’s frustrations nullified his own game. In the end it was a fifth match without a goal for the league’s top goalscorer – eight if you count his Europa League and international outings.
If Cavani is not firing - and there is a feeling that all the speculation over his future in Naples and that €65 million price tag is effecting his form - then Napoli find it difficult to put chances away.
Their equalizer just before the break came when a fortuitous deflection off Leonardo Bonucci’s head saw Gokhan Inler’s effort fly beyond the diving Buffon.
Napoli had a couple half-chances in the second half but Chiellini’s complete domination of Cavani took the fizz out of the home team.
The rugged man-marker had been sidelined with a calf tear since December, and in that time Juventus had gone on their worst run of form during the season, dropping points, crashing out of the Coppa Italia and generally looking far less than invincible.
Conte understood that Chiellini was the combative heartbeat of the team and although he brought in Federico Peluso from his old club Atalanta to add a bit of extra height and weight to the backline, no one can replace the eagerness and determination from the strapping Italy international. More than anyone else, Chiellini epitomises the club’s unofficial motto; “it’s never over till it’s over”.
Andrea Barzagli and Martin Caceres have both been asked to fill in as the left-sided centreback, but lack the physical presence of Chiellini, who demonstrated that he can also make an impact at the other end of the pitch with Friday’s timely first goal of the season.
However, it is in his natural environment of getting up close and personal to the opposition’s star striker where he really excels. In the past, the Livorno-born player has driven the likes of Zlatan Ibrahomovic to distraction with his single-minded approach of snuffing out the threat by whatever means, be it fair or illegal.
There was little or no consternation in Italy over what went on between the defender and Cavani throughout the ninety minutes, with the Juventus camp complaining that Cavani had kneed Chiellini in the nether regions, which sent their man into a rage of hair pulling, while they swapped shirts at the end with Cavani begrudgingly giving in to one last bear hug.
Chiellini applied the pressure to Cavani to perfection; well aware that football is not a game but a battle of wills, to be won both physically and mentally.
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