Sunday sees current Scudetto champions Juventus square off against arch rivals Napoli. The real intrigue, though, comes from either side’s dugout.
It almost didn’t happen. After news broke that 14 Genoa players had tested positive for COVID following their match with Napoli, there were serious doubts as to whether the Neapolitan’s game this weekend against Juventus would go ahead. Fortunately, Napoli have reported a clean bill of health, which has once again drawn eyes towards one of Italy’s fiercest fixtures.
Napoli currently sit atop Serie A after the opening two gameweeks. Eight goals scored, zero conceded. It’s been the perfect start for I Partenopei, who looked at their devastating best against Genoa, romping to a 6-0 win. New big-money signing Victor Osimhen is yet to get off the mark but club-record goalscorer Dries Mertens has helped himself to a goal in both fixtures thus far.
Juventus are also undefeated going into Sunday, but had to settle for a point last time out in Rome as they came from behind twice thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo (who else?) to earn a draw against Roma. Juve have won Serie A for the past nine straight seasons but, after a shaky end to their last campaign and a subsequent managerial change, there are growing concerns from within the Turin camp that they may not make it to ten.
Despite the abundance of narratives which flow through any game involving Juventus and Napoli, the most intriguing comes from the current occupants of either dugout. Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso spent a decade in midfield together for A.C. Milan and were both part of Italy’s 2006 World Cup winning squad.
For years, Gattuso’s role at Milan was viewed through the lens of Pirlo’s enforcer; body-checking any opponent who dared venture too close to the maestro. To the untrained eye, Gattuso was seen as something of a glorified caddie, clubbing his way to the green before Pirlo sank the all-important putt. His game was, of course, far more nuanced than that, but only now — through his managerial career — is he getting his rightful dues.
Napoli’s manager has gone some way to escaping the snarling reputation he acquired at Milan since. That vein-popping intensity is still evident in his team’s play, but it’s clear to see there’s a deeper level of tactical intricacy there, something Gattuso was seldom praised for during his playing days.
Draw the curtains wide enough, look beyond the abundant passion and you’ll see a studious coach. Sure, he’s not the second-coming of Marcelo Bielsa, but labelling him nothing more than a man-motivator is folly. Gattuso cut his managerial teeth in Italy’s lower leagues, coached in Milan’s youth ranks before taking the top job, and has more than earned his place on the touchline this Sunday.
The same cannot be said of Pirlo. Adoration was never far from the playmaker in his heyday and it’s followed him into retirement, to the point he’s now seen as something of a mythical figure — a suave gentleman, who handles footballs as effortlessly as he swills fine wines around the inside of his cheeks.
Such reverence is evident from the fact he’s landed Serie A’s biggest gig with no managerial experience, before even closing the final chapter on his coaching badges. Time will be the ultimate judge of whether such blinding faith was warranted, but his first two games have afforded us an insight into Pirlo the manager.
“On the field, Pirlo and Gattuso perfectly complemented each other. Gattuso was the tough-tackler, winning the ball back and in general passing to Pirlo so he could make the more sophisticated moves,” Italian football expert Chloe Beresford tells GiveMeSport.
“In terms of managerial style, Gattuso is obviously much more experienced and has managed to somewhat shed his reputation as just a motivator. He’s learned more of the tactical nuances that are so predominant in the Italian game. Pirlo, on the other hand, has only shown his managerial stripes on two occasions so far, but it appears he wants to bring more of an attacking, modern ‘atalanta style’ approach to Juve.”
The coaches are firm friends, however, as we saw this week with Frank Lampard and José Mourinho, friendships can soon be cast aside in the heat of battle. “He’s lucky to be starting at Juventus,” Gatusso said of Pirlo’s appointment. “But this profession is one where a great playing career is not enough.”
Animosity between Juventus and Napoli is deep-rooted in Italy’s socio-political history. The rivalry is not just about football, but instead speaks to wider conflicts between the north and south of the country. Turin and Naples represent huge economic hubs in both regions, meaning contests between their club sides often take on the role of a class war.
Northern Italy is opulent and powerful, and many Juve fans view themselves as a higher class of citizen than those who don the sky blue of Napoli. The Neapolitans, conversely, are unabashedly working class. They see the north, and by association Juventus, as greedy and corrupt.
Matches between the clubs have always been heated, but took on greater significance throughout the 1980s as Napoli rose to challenge the north’s dominance. Napoli’s two Diego Maradona-inspired Scudettos remain to this day the south’s only Serie A titles in history. Juventus soon re-established their supremacy however, and would join the Milan clubs in dominating the ‘90s.
Key events since the turn of millennium which have stoked the fires include Juventus’ dealings in Italy’s infamous calciopoli scandal, the transfer of Gonzalo Higuaín, and multiple unsavoury scenes exchanged between the two sets of fans. The clubs’ most recent meeting came in last season’s Coppa Italia Final, a match Napoli edged out on penalties to claim their first major trophy in six years.
It’s early days, but there’s a lot of optimism outside of Turin that this may, finally, be the season someone other than Juventus wins Serie A. The Bianconeri limped over the line last year to claim their ninth consecutive title, leading to the dismissal of head coach Maurizio Sarri after just one season in charge.
The main contenders for Juve’s crown come in the form of Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan and Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta. The former finished a solitary point off top spot last season, and there’s a growing confidence that Conte — who led Juve to their first three titles in the current run — can be the man to break his old employer’s stranglehold on the title.
The latter have been a breath of fresh air over the past two seasons, playing an exhilarating and vibrant brand of attacking football. Atalanta are currently joint-top of the table with Napoli, and harbour real ambitions of being able to complete a modern day fairytale this time around by winning Italian football’s ultimate prize.
Napoli are something of an outside bet. “They are underestimated a lot,” said Conte when asked about their chances of challenging for honours this season. “They are an excellent team, among the favourites for the Scudetto. They have a very good coach who will make life difficult for everyone.”
Gattuso has spent his entire career making life difficult for opponents, much to the benefit of Pirlo, so it’ll be fascinating to see what happens on Sunday when Gattuso lines his men up on the other side of the ring.
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