For so long this season it has felt possible that Napoli might – just might – bring an end to the Juventus hegemony that has stifled Serie A in recent years. At times, it has even felt likely.
There has been a sense of optimism, of hope, and not just from Neapolitans. Maurizio Sarri’s side have earned admiration throughout Europe: the underdogs, playing with style and expression, attacking verve and ferocious intensity, attempting to topple the imposing behemoth that has for years appeared an inexorable force.
There is a romanticism about Napoli: they are challenging the established order of things in a way that has endeared them to onlookers with no particular affinity to any Italian clubs.
And, put simply, Juventus’ dominance has grown boring. A Serie A title for Napoli would represent a change, a paradigm shift, perhaps the end of an era. Many in Italy would welcome that, for Juventus’ hegemony has felt oppressive, almost suffocating, as if it might never end.
It is similar to the situation in Germany, where Bayern Munich are unchallenged in the Bundesliga and look set to continue as such.
But in Serie A this season, there has been a title challenge. Inter and Roma were involved in the early stages before Napoli and Juventus pulled away. Both have been imperious, unerringly consistent and far superior to their competition.
For most of the campaign, it has been Sarri’s men leading the way. They have repeatedly been tasked with responding to Juventus victories, and for months kept their nerve impressively.
Last month, at home against Lazio, Napoli trailed early but came back to win 4-1. It was seen as a sign of a hardened mentality; the implosion expected by many hadn’t materialised and perhaps it wouldn’t.
Now, though, after the last two matchdays, it is advantage Juventus. And, for all of Napoli’s exhilarating football, their apparent refusal to succumb to the might of the Bianconeri, there is a sense of inevitability to it all.
Fighting against the odds
The prospect of a first title since the days of Diego Maradona has been all-consuming in Naples. Sarri and his players have conjured a sense of excitement and expectation. But there remains an underlying acceptance that they are fighting against the odds.
Last weekend was an encapsulation of the league’s zeitgeist. Juventus, having looked set to drop points in Rome against Lazio, scored a late winner. Paulo Dybala burst into the box and, almost in a sitting position, directed the ball into the top corner. Even when it had seemed impossible, Max Allegri’s side had found a way to win, again. That is what they do, and have done relentlessly for a number of years.
Napoli were understandably dejected. They hosted Roma a day later, a difficult test and with the pressure beginning to tighten like a vice. Lorenzo Insigne scored early on but they fell to a 4-2 defeat and the significance was lost on no-one.
On Sunday, more points were dropped, a 0-0 draw at Inter that would normally have been considered a positive result. But this wasn’t normal. Instead, it was another disappointment, after Juventus had swatted aside Udinese with a Dybala brace.
It has not taken long for the atmosphere to change.
Much of the hope has been extinguished; the prevailing sentiment now is that Juventus are simply too strong, too impermeable, an experienced, unflappable outfit with a backbone of steel and a grip on the Scudetto that cannot be prised open by even the most industrious, innovative opposition. Yet the gap is still only one point – albeit Napoli have played a game more.
“We are not the richest team in Italy, nor the strongest,” Sarri said after the goalless draw in Milan. “We are not the ones obliged to win here. But we must do our best right to the end. If the other team gets 105 points that will be to their credit. Let’s be clear though, this group still believes in itself.”
That belief has been evident throughout the season, but there is an underlying element of fatalism too, exposed over the last week. Perhaps Napoli are destined to be the glorious losers, the admired runners-up, à la Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool team of 2013-14, or the Netherlands side of 1974.
Should that be the case they would still deserve great credit. Few expected them to challenge Juventus so sternly. It is premature, anyway, to rule them out, given the persistence and focus they have demonstrated thus far.
But perhaps this Napoli side will be remembered more fondly if they are to miss out on the Scudetto. The fragility of this team, the sense of adversity, makes for a story of romanticism. Success, as football has proved on countless occasions, does not always come to those who deserve it.
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