Here were three simple words that encapsulated some of the worst tendencies of Italian football. “Non sbagliate l’arbitro,” commanded the front-page headline of Tuttosport newspaper on Thursday morning – “don’t pick the wrong referee”.
The reference was to this Saturday’s fixture between Juventus and Napoli. Two days before one of the biggest fixtures on the Serie A calendar – a game between the reigning champions and their most likely challengers – one of the nation’s biggest sporting publications had chosen to focus not on the football but instead the hypothetical possibility that a yet-to-be appointed official could affect the outcome.
Tuttosport, based in Turin and focussing a large part of their resources on Juve, are prone to a sensationalist approach, but if this was an extreme end of the spectrum they were hardly the only ones speaking in conspiratorial tones. All week the Italian Football Federation had been forced to defend itself from the suggestions that they were somehow favouring one team over the other.
It began with the revelation that the Juventus manager, Antonio Conte, had handed over some information about his players’ personalised training programmes to the national team – a move designed to further the co-operation between club and national team, but which instead led to accusations of favouritism. Such claims were further fuelled when it emerged that Gigi Buffon might not play against Denmark due to a thigh injury. The sceptics insisted he was simply preserving himself for the weekend game.
In the event Buffon not only missed the Denmark fixture – with Napoli’s Morgan De Sanctis replacing him – but at time of writing is considered a significant doubt for Sunday’s game. Indeed, there were suggestions on Thursday that he might even have inflamed the injury attempting to prove his fitness for Tuesday’s game.
This was always likely to be a contentious fixture, not only because of its potential significance for the standings – both teams are level after seven games on 19 points – but because of events at the pre-season SuperCup. After losing in extra-time, Napoli’s players had declined to attend the medal ceremony in protest at perceived refereeing injustices. The team’s owner, Aurelio De Laurentiis, subsequently declared his team moral winners, handed each player a bonus and threatened never to take part in the fixture again.
It is a shame, though, that so much of the pre-match attention should fall on matters off the field because from a purely footballing stand-point this is a fascinating fixture. Napoli are, after all, still the only team to have beaten Juventus since Conte took charge of the Bianconeri last summer, having defeated them in the final of last year’s Coppa Italia.
It is a match-up between the two most solid defences in the division, Juventus having conceded four goals so far this season but Napoli just three – none of them, intriguingly, away from home. Prior to this season, though, Walter Mazzarri’s away record against the division’s biggest teams has been poor.
Neither team’s preparation has been ideal, with Juventus fretting over not only Buffon but also Mirko Vucinic, who returned from Montenegro’s 1-0 win in Ukraine with a fever. Napoli’s star forward and leading goalscorer Edinson Cavani, meanwhile, missed a connection during a complicated return journey from international duty with Uruguay, and subsequently has not had time to take part in a full training session with Napoli before this game.
From a betting standpoint it all adds up to a complicated picture. The value lies with Napoli; given both their defensive solidity and the potential absence of Vucinic, the away clean sheet is tempting at 5.25. In the goalscorers market, Marek Hamsik is worth consideration – having scored five goals already in his career against these opponents. But if you’re asking me who I personally think will win, home advantage nudges a marginal decision in Juventus’s favour.
Score prediction: Juventus 1-0 Napoli (8.25)