This Saturday sees the resumption of what is quickly becoming the hottest battle in Serie A as Napoli once again travel north to face off against Juventus, the team who represent everything supporters of the Partenopei despise. Seemingly their entire ethos is to rally against the establishment, painting themselves as outsiders, happy to live in the shadow of Vesuvius but never content to be put into the shade by Italian football’s biggest clubs.
Even before a certain Argentinian donned their number ten shirt and made them league winners for the first time, SSC Napoli had a proud tradition of revelling in victories over the likes of Milan, Roma and Inter. But it was always Juventus whose scalp they most craved and it has been no different in more recent times, as the actions of Aurelio De Laurentiis following his side’s SuperCoppa defeat to the Bianconeri proved.
The club President ensured his players left the pitch at full-time and avoided the trophy presentation in protest against a number of refereeing decisions which they believed went against them during the match. He has been charged for that decision and is awaiting punishment from the FIGC’s disciplinary panel which is sure to make the volatile 63-year old even more outspoken over the next few days, adding to the tension ahead of a match which sold out in just two hours on Monday morning when 13,000 remaining tickets went on general sale.
Despite the wonderfully Italian nature of events off the field, it will as always fall to those on it to decide the result and the two table-topping teams combine to feature seven of the eleven best players of the season so far according the WhoScored.com ratings system. Yet as effective as five of those – Hugo Campagnaro, Kwadwo Asamoah, Giorgio Chiellini, Edinson Cavani and Sebastian Giovinco – have been, it is arguably two other men whose performance over ninety minutes will likely decide the outcome.
Going head-to-head in midfield, Marek Hamšík and Andrea Pirlo represent a contrast almost as great as the one between Juve’s image as the grand Old Lady of Calcio and Napoli’s view of themselves as the peninsula’s rebellious Scugnizzo. With his garish faux-hawk – which he did allow celebrating teammates to shave following their Coppa Italia victory over Juventus back in May – adding to the view of him as an ultra modern midfielder.
So far this season he has three goals and three assists to his name, making a huge contribution to an attack robbed of the talent of the highly influential Ezequiel Lavezzi. Now relied upon to be even more of a leader, Hamšik has picked up the slack left by the Argentine, recording an average rating of 7.85 this term, a figure which sees him ranked as Serie A’s sixth best player thus far and a significant increase on the 7.08 he registered last term.
Featuring in all seven of his club’s games this term, the 25-year old has also completed 81.8% of his passes at an average of 46.4 per game. Playing in a deeper role than last term thanks to Walter Mazzarri’s decision to switch to a 3-5-1-1 formation, he has also averaged 1.4 tackles and 0.4 interceptions per game, very similar numbers to those posted last term (1.3 and 0.5 respectively) whilst breaking forward more regularly to post increased stats for shots on goal (2.4) and key passes (2.1) compared to last term, where both figures were 1.6.
Coming up against him will be Andrea Pirlo, the bearded genius at the heart of the undefeated Bianconeri side, his facial hair as much of a throwback as his tempo-dictating, traditional regista style of play. He has averaged 84 passes per game this term which, to the surprise of very few people, is more than anyone else in the league and the fourth highest total across Europe’s top five leagues, at a completion rate of 86.9%. He has also recorded an average WhoScored.com rating of 8.15, behind only Hernanes in Serie A and again the fourth highest in Europe.
He has netted three goals but just one assist, despite only Francesco Totti (19) making more key passes than Pirlo’s 18 this term, although he did make a point saving pass to Leo Bonucci in the 1-1 with Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League and scored in the Azzurri’s most recent World Cup Qualifier away to Armenia.
The 33-year old has made 1.2 through balls and 10.8 long balls per match (both the third highest of any player on the peninsula) whilst adding 2.7 tackles and 1.8 interceptions as part of Antonio Conte’s highly charged pressing game which can often suffocate opponents.
Despite the vast differences between them, it is quite likely the two will be direct opponents when the whistle blows on Saturday evening with their respective teams looking to them as potential match winners. Which of the pair comes out on top may well decide a fixture which has seen 24 goals and 35 cards in the last six meetings and if the fireworks on the pitch are to outshine those in the stands and directors boxes, it could fall to Andrea Pirlo or Marek Hamšík to provide them.