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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Hunters Juventus now the hunted as Napoli keep scudetto chase alive

  • Serie A leaders Juventus held to a 1-1 draw by struggling Crotone on Wednesday
  • Napoli come from behind to beat Udinese
  • Italy's top two meet at the Juventus Stadium on Sunday
Juventus forward Gonzalo Higuain failed to find the net in the 1-1 draw against relegation-threatened Crotone on Wednesday. He faces his former employers, Napoli, in Serie A on Sunday. Giovanni Isolino / AFP
Juventus forward Gonzalo Higuain failed to find the net in the 1-1 draw against relegation-threatened Crotone on Wednesday. He faces his former employers, Napoli, in Serie A on Sunday. Giovanni Isolino / AFP

These are cliffhanger times for Juventus, the club with the nickname, the Old Lady, that evokes a certain stateliness and a team whose progress to most of their last six consecutive Serie A titles has been more comfortable and ordered than the current bid.

Juve, still reeling from the last-minute, heartbreak elimination from the Champions League just over a week ago, meet Napoli, their rivals for the 2017/18 scudetto, on Sunday with nerves on edge.

The latest episode in the joust was full of twists and turns. In the space of 15 dramatic minutes on Wednesday night, the gap between first and second in what has been much the most compelling title race in Europe’s major leagues this season shrank from nine points to four. In Crotone, at the home of the club 18th in Serie A, Juventus took an early, expected lead. Meanwhile, in Naples, visiting Udinese went 1-0 up, then 2-1 up 10 minutes after half time. At that stage, Juventus supporters might have risked a relieved exhalation, and nurtured the thought that, with five games left of the league season, the hard work had been all but done.

Everything turned after 64 minutes. In Naples, a familiar Spanish intervention: A Jose Callejon corner, met by Raul Albiol, put the pursuers back to 2-2. In Crotone, a manoeuvre that has become eerily familiar to Juve brought the champions back to earth with a thud.

The Crotone equaliser was spectacular. Nigerian Simeon Nwankwo, "Simy" for short, has found first-team opportunities and goals in Italy hard to come by. Yet his third of the season spoke of a man of buoyant confidence, an overhead volley, perhaps slightly shinned but precise and powerful enough to zip past Wojciech Szczesny. Déjà vu? The Crotone fans certainly spotted it. "Simy – just like Ronaldo," they chanted, relishing the fact that in two short weeks Juventus had been set back by two stunning bicycle-kick goals, Cristiano Ronaldo having executed one in the 3-0 win in Italy in the first leg of the see-saw, 4-3 aggregate Champions League semi-final win for Real Madrid over Juventus.

The nature of that loss, the Juve comeback in Madrid, then the last-gasp penalty that put the Spaniards through has, admitted Max Allegri, lingered in the thoughts of Juve players. There have been signs of distraction in their league form in matches in and around those epic European nights. Juventus had not conceded a Serie A goal in all of 2018 until, the weekend before the first leg against Madrid, Leonardo Bonucci netted against them for AC Milan. Simy’s swirl into the night sky was the fourth league goal Juve had let in in as many league games.

Six minutes after the Nigerian had struck, the tide turned in Naples. Napoli took the lead against Udinese, and soon added a fourth. Goal difference in the title race still favours Juventus, but a race it is, once again. Should Napoli win in Turin – a hard ask, but Lazio and Madrid have both done so this season – then the gap becomes a single point.

And the fixture list seems kinder after Sunday to Napoli, who led the table with only a brief interruption between mid-September until early March, than to Juventus, who must still play Inter Milan and Roma, both in the tight jostle for Champions League qualification, and Verona, battling to avoid one of two remaining relegation spots. Napoli face each of the clubs – Fiorentina, Sampdoria, and Torino – currently in the knot between eighth and 10th, and then host Crotone, scrabbling in 18th place, on the last day.

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It may be over by then. Allegri suspects otherwise. This is a cliffhanger that will run and run, says the Juventus manager. “The title will be decided on May 20th,” he predicted after dropping two points at Crotone.

He still believes momentum is with Juve. “Being four points ahead going into the game against Napoli would have been unthinkable two months ago.” Back then, Juventus were the chasers and although they have a formidable record at stalking, catching and then consolidating a lead, the cool aura of the club has been shaken a little over the last three weeks.

Napoli’s manager, Maurizio Sarri, makes his own claim that the impetus is with his side, dreaming of a first Neapolitan scudetto since the 1990s. He felt “happy”, Sarri said, at the nature of the comeback against Udinese, after two periods of “blackout” in a roller-coaster of a contest.

“I think we have our edge back again, and with this team you always know we will go to any stadium, against any opposition looking to take the initiative.”

Napoli had the initiative in this captivating chase for so long. They are determined it has not yet slipped from their grasp.

Juventus v Napoli, Sunday, 10.45pm (UAE)

Match on Bein Sports

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