It has been a busy two week stretch in Serie A, with a midweek match date and some Coppa Italia semi-finals sprinkled in; yet absolutely nothing has changed at the top of the championship points table.
And this is very good news for Napoli. The team that has been woefully inconsistent over the past few seasons – especially last year with a nearly identical roster – has passed its first major test without breaking a sweat. Not only has the club now won a record eight games in a row, but it has recently done so from the unfamiliar position of championship leader, showing that whatever pressure the players might be feeling at this point hasn’t effected them at all.
Going down a goal early against Empoli only seemed to goad them into scoring the next five in a row, and while a blatantly offside goal helped to break open the match against Lazio, Napoli still looked fairly dominant on the road in Rome before coming home again to dispatch a scrappy Carpi side. As usual it was Higuain grabbing the headlines in that last win, but the true man of the match was coach Maurizio Sarri.
Coming from obscurity and now navigating in completely unfamiliar waters, Sarri made the brave decision to let his Argentine striker take the decisive penalty kick despite his two infamous misses in 2015, one of which sabotaged Napoli’s chance for a Champion’s League spot, and the other dashing Argentina’s Copa America hopes.
Indeed, if there was one chink in Higuain’s armor it was his propensity to choke from the penalty spot, and so if his confidence wasn’t already at stratospheric heights, his cathartic conversion against Carpi will have removed any lingering doubts and put completely him over the top. In short, Sarri and Napoli are doing exactly what they need to be doing in order to carry this scudetto bid to the very end.
Meanwhile it’s business as usual for Juventus as they calmly plow their way through the Serie A field. The most noteworthy development for Allegri’s side is that Alvaro Morata looks to be back on form following a pair of goals against Inter in the Italian cup and a decisive assist yesterday against Frosinone, and now we must wait and see if their Champion’s League matchup against Bayern Munich depletes them of more energy than Napoli’s Europa League matchup against Villarreal is likely to do.
As for the rest of the league, both Fiorentina and Inter have fallen back down to earth with a predictable thud, and the fight for the final Champion’s League birth is now particularly tight thanks to two thoroughly unconvincing wins from AS Roma. Simply reading the scoreboard might lead one to believe that Spalletti has turned things around in the Italian capital, but the truth is that their last six points have come thanks to a missed injury time penalty from Sassuolo’s Berardi, and a miraculous effort from Szczeny plus a friendly crossbar bounce against Sampdoria. Fiorentina look the most likely of the three to claim the coveted spot in the end, even if relying on last minute heroics for Mauro Zarate is surely a terrible strategy for doing so.
We can’t close without mentioning the off-field events that have overshadowed the actual play recently in Serie A, where homophobic remarks, racist chants and bans for visiting fans have left many wondering about the current state of Italian soccer. In fact, the decision not to let Napoli supporters enter Juventus stadium for the tremendously important first place match this coming Saturday is the surest sign of all that league management are still several steps behind their counterparts in England, Spain and Germany.
They may no longer have a monopoly on the world’s best players, but the football being played in the Italian league is every bit as interesting and formidable as any other league in the world. And while offhand remarks made in the heat of the moment and disgruntled supporters groups voicing their discontent are difficult issues to rectify, there is no excuse for the lack of foresight and organizational ability revealed in the decision to bar opposing fans from attending a match.
The whole world will be watching Juve-Napoli on Saturday, but unfortunately Serie A will not be putting its best foot forward. Let’s hope that the actual game itself is good enough to make the most of the opportunity and show fans that Leicester City isn’t the only thing in soccer to get excited about this season.
Sean Sedacca covers Italian soccer for Bigsoccerhead. You can also listen to Sean on the latest Bigsoccerhead Podcast.