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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Who will blink first in Serie A title race: Napoli or Juventus?

Napoli have held a one-point lead over the Turin side since going top on December 16. For the last four weekends, Juventus have played first, won their game to go top for a few hours before being overhauled again

Marek Hamsik and his Napoli teammates lead Juventus in the Serie A table by a point before the weekend's fixtures. Tiziana Fabi / AFP
Marek Hamsik and his Napoli teammates lead Juventus in the Serie A table by a point before the weekend's fixtures. Tiziana Fabi / AFP

The Serie A title race appears to have become a simple matter of who will blink first: Napoli or Juventus.

Napoli have held a one-point lead over the Turin side since going top on December 16 and neither team has shown any sign of giving way, with both winning their last nine league games.

For the last four weekends, Juventus have played first, won their game to go top for a few hours before being overhauled again.

Chasing a seventh successive title, Juventus will have another chance to draw first blood this weekend when they host Atalanta on Sunday evening while Napoli will have to wait until Monday for their visit to struggling Cagliari.

The titleholders also play first in the following three rounds of matches - much to the displeasure of Napoli manager Maurizio Sarri who said in January that Serie A had committed a "gigantic mistake" in compiling the fixture list.

Sarri believes that, rather like the team that goes first in a penalty shoot-out, Juventus gain a psychological advantage from the order of play.

Serie A have said that their hands have been tied by the calendar as they have to tread around Coppa Italia, Uefa Champions League and Europa League fixtures.

With eight more rounds of matches to play before a potentially decisive clash between the pair in Turin on April 22, the question is how long can both keep winning.

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Both look comfortable favourites to make it 10 in a row at the weekend, but there is the potential for slipups on March 3 when Napoli host third-placed Roma and Juventus visit fourth-placed Lazio.

After that, Napoli must visit Inter Milan on March 11 - though that is not such a daunting prospect given Inter's current form - and they have a tough match at AC Milan on April 15. Their other fixtures are against Genoa, Sassuolo, Chievo and Udinese.

Juventus host AC Milan on March 31, but their other games are less demanding against Udinese, SPAL, Benevento, Sampdoria and Crotone.

Under pragmatic manager Massimiliano Allegri, Juventus have become experts at grinding out results and this season has been no exception. They have conceded only one league goal in their last 12 games and five of those ended in 1-0 wins.

Napoli have a reputation for playing free-flowing football and piling on the goals but they, too, have learned the trick of winning even when they do not play well.

"Last year, in a scrappy game like today’s we would have been in trouble," Sarri said after a 1-0 win at Udinese in November. "The improvement we have made this season is to win ugly games."

They did it again last Sunday, edging past SPAL 1-0 at a rain-soaked San Paolo.

"Will the title be decided on the last day?" said the chain-smoking Sarri after the game. "I hope so, and I hope the standings will still be the same."