Juventus completed their meteoric rise back to the top of Serie A on Saturday with a tense 1-0 victory over Napoli at the Juventus Stadium.
The Bianconeri came into the game having lost Mario Mandzukic and Giorgio Chiellini to injuries. The loss of Chiellini forced Massimiliano Allegri to change his formation from 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2, with Alvaro Morata and Paolo Dybala up front.
Napoli lined up in their usual 4-3-3 formation, as lethal forward Gonzalo Higuain looked to continue his goal average of a goal a game.
It was a tight game with few openings. Napoli made the brighter start, deploying their pressing game to good effect early on, but Juventus soon took control, without creating a clear cut chance.
The most heart stopping moment of the half actually came from Napoli, when an Elseid Hysaj cross almost found the head of Higuain, but it was cleared magnificently by Leonardo Bonucci.
After an absorbing first half, the second half lacked quality. Juve’s first big chance came just after an hour, as Paul Pogba effortlessly chested the ball down and laid it off to Dybala, who fired over from just outside the box.
Napoli’s only real chance came from a Marek Hamsik shot which went over the bar after eighty minutes. Both Lorenzo Insigne and Higuain had been silenced by the Juventus defence.
Insigne showed just one flash of inspiration early in the second half, as he wriggled past Juventus defenders to hit the post from close range. Higuain only managed one tame shot late on, as he was well marshalled by Andrea Barzagli.
The game was settled by the one moment of genuine quality in the match. Alex Sandro won a header on the left hand side, the ball reached Patrice Evra, who knocked it to Simone Zaza, who turned Kalidou Koulibaly and rifled a powerful shot past Pepe Reina.
It was a goal that vindicated Allegri’s tactical decisions. He brought on Zaza for the ineffective Morata, and had shifted back to their usual 3-5-2 (actually more of a 3-6-1) when he took off Dybala for Sandro.
Juventus deserved the victory. Particular credit has to go to Barzagli, who nullified Higuain and showed that despite being 34, he is still among the best centre backs in Europe. Juan Cuadrado also had a solid game for Juve, as he worked exceptionally hard, chasing and winning balls that seemed lost and showing flashes of skill.
Allegri also got his tactics spot on in the game, controlling the game with 4-4-2, and winning with his substitutions.
Napoli, on the other hand, were thoroughly disappointing. After a positive start, they lacked ideas on how to break down Juve for the rest of the game.
Higuain and Insigne, as mentioned earlier, were not really involved, and the likes of Callejon and Hamsik were also anonymous. They did, however, defend resolutely, only being defeated by a moment of brilliance.
It has been an astonishing few months for the Bianconeri after a terrible start to the season.
After defeat to Sassuolo in week 10, Juventus’ title defence looked over, as they were eleven points behind then leaders Roma.
Fifteen successive victories later they are top of the league, a point ahead of Napoli and ten points ahead of Roma in third place. They will face Bologna on Friday night, before their Champions League round of 16 clash with Bayern Munich.
Napoli, meanwhile, are at a crossroads. They are still in a tight title race, but they also have the Europa League coming up.
Winning the Europa League is a realistic prospect for the Partenopei, but the constant grind of playing on a Thursday then a Sunday or Monday could derail their title challenge. Will they be able to balance the demands of Serie A and Europe?
It was not the classic that many were hoping for, but Juventus ground out the victory by battling, as their slogan goes, ‘fino alla fine’.