Juventus were once the unassailable side, almost nailed-on champions. Occasionally, there would be a challenger, such as Maurizio Sarri's Napoli in 2017/18, but eventually things would settle down to the usual hierarchy. This time, however, things have been quite different.
We're more than halfway through the season, and Juve sit third in Serie A, behind the two Milan clubs. Stefano Pioli's rejuvenated AC Milan sit atop the pile with 49 points, while Inter lag a couple behind. Juve are on 42, but they do have a game in hand. Under the circumstances, then, that game in hand becomes utterly crucial for the Old Lady. Incidentally, that game comes against Napoli, the club that ran them so close three years ago.
Any other season, Juventus v Napoli would've been a top of the table clash. The Milan clubs, however, are making this seem like more of a mid-table clash.
Maurizio Sarri's Napoli side finished on 91 points, an exceptional total for any season. But Juve finished on 95, and clinched another title. Sarri left for the bright lights of London, and they have never been the same. After finishing a distant second in 2018/19, they finished seventh last season.
Under Gennaro Gattuso this season, the season has been rather inconsistent for Napoli. They beat Roma 4-0 and Fiorentina 6-0, but lost to Verona, Spezia and Genoa. They lie 6th on the table, 12 points off the pace with their blockbuster game in hand.
Juventus took a path that has become a bit more common recently – appointing a legend as their coach to replace one who the fans were torn about. Things have not gone to plan for Pirlo yet this season. Maurizio Sarri won the title last season, but there was a sense of unease, a feeling that it wouldn't be too long before others catch up.
The knee-jerk reaction to replace the Italian has been a mixed one, certainly. Juventus brought in Cristiano Ronaldo from Real Madrid to win the Champions League - the one jewel missing their recent run of dominance. The Serie A was a rather foregone conclusion, and all eyes looked to Europe. But this season, it seems like even the league is slipping out of their grasp.
Season of struggle
This fixture between the Old Lady and the Partenopei was supposed to take place earlier. A coronavirus outbreak forced Napoli to abandon that, and Juventus took home three points. That was stripped away, however, after an appeal from Napoli.
They did meet last month in the Supercoppa Italiana. Goals from Cristiano and Alvaro Morata downed the defending Coppa Italia champions. Napoli further lost this season's semi-final to high-flying Atalanta, which means they won't be there to defend the title in May.
A lot is at stake when they meet in Naples. A loss would surely end any last hope of a title challenge for the home side. Juventus, too, wouldn't want to fall further behind teams that don't drop points too often.
Juve still have their dependable centre-back pairing to rely on along with the sturdy Mathijs de Ligt, with Juan Cuadrado and Danilo doing reasonably well at full-back. Weston McKennie has proved a shrewd acquisition too, while Arthur is a classy operator.
Cristiano, as always, has shown just how good he is, coming up with goals time and again. The Portuguese certainly shows no signs of ageing, although he has missed fair share of games this season. The other midfielders have been inconsistent, and so have the young wingers Dejan Kulusevski and Federico Chiesa. Alvaro Morata, who returned to Turin after two spells in Spain and an unhappy one in England, isn't as prolific as they need him to be. It is therefore a surprise that Paulo Dybala hasn't played as much. He is probably their best attacker after Cristiano.
Dybala, of course, has been injured recently, and he could return in this fixture. Aaron Ramsey has also missed the last three games, and a return could be on the cards depending upon his progress. Two players who will definitely miss out are Arthur and Leonardi Bonucci. Juventus certainly have adequate replacements to make up for their absence. The likes of Rodrigo Bentancur, Adrien Rabiot and Merih Demiral will have their chance to shine.
For Napoli, attack has been their problem. They boast the second best defensive record in the league, bettered only by their upcoming opponents.
But in attack, they have been far too reliant on Insigne. Their best days have coincided with the best of their influential captain. Insigne has very much taken up the mantle left vacant by Marek Hamsik's departure. But around him, Hirving Lozano, Andrea Petagna and Matteo Politano haven't been consistent enough.
Star signing Victor Osimhen is yet to hit the ground running, and they mist hope he finds his form sooner rather than later. In midfield, the on-loan midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko has been a revelation, however, taking the spot at the base of midfield that was vacant after Allan went to Everton.
Gattuso seems to have strained relations with the club president Aurelio Di Laurentiis, who reports suggest is looking for a new manager. This could, therefore, be an important game for him in terms of whether or not he keeps his job. It's not looking particularly positive for him, considering the players he will miss.
Elseid Hysaj and Diego Demme may not return from their injuries, while Kalidou Koulibaly and Faouzi Ghoulam are laid off by coronavirus. Kostas Manolas and Faouzi Ghoulam are also expected to miss out. That makes it six first-teamers missing, and the depth of the squad will be tested.
Juventus haven't been as dominant as they would like, but there's no denying they walk into this game as favourites. The table would reiterate this, and Napoli's injury list doesn't help. With first-choice centre-backs Koulibaly and Manolas both out, Maksimovic and Rrahmani will have their task cut out. Juventus will probably dominate the ball and create a barrage of chances that Napoli will have to defend.
Right now, at least on paper, it seems like a definite victory for Juventus. Much will depend on how Gattuso sets his team out and whether or not he goes with a more attacking prospect. This has the potential to end up as a goal fest or a dour goalless draw!
Prediction: Juventus 3-0 Napoli