Serie A 'Super Sunday' will test title hopes of Juventus, Roma, Napoli, Lazio
The choreography is being prepared. Spray paint is drying on cloth as slogans are written on bedsheets and throws. The flags are tied, ready to be unfurled and waved in the Curve at the Olimpico and the San Paolo. Boxes of flares and firecrackers sit ready to be unpacked, the powder kept dry for kickoff.
Since la Befana it's all anyone has been talking about in the piazzas and bars of Naples, Rome and Turin over a cornetto and a cappuccino in the morning and a pizza and a bottle of beer in the evening. The anticipation is high and feverishly so, ahead of a veritable Super Sunday after which the fault lines of the Italian title race could have undergone some seismic changes.
This weekend, the top four come face-to-face, and this is no ordinary quartet. As a primo piatto in the afternoon it's the Derby della Capitale, Roma vs. Lazio, one of the most intense rivalries throughout all the world. Then if you haven't already had your fill, in the evening comes the secondo, Napoli vs. Juventus. "For me, it's the national derby," said Aurelio De Laurentiis, the Napoli owner, to La Repubblica. "Juve are not a Turin team; they have support throughout Italy, even in our town. But Napoli are the flag-bearer of the south."
Roma, back once again to only being a point behind the capolista (league leaders) Juventus, will be hoping Napoli do them a favour. They know how hard and intimidating a place Fuorigrotta is to go, not only after losing there in November but also last season in the league and Coppa Italia. Meanwhile, Lazio will take no greater pleasure than denying their cugini (or inner-city cousins) the satisfaction of waking up on Monday morning in first place. The cat would be put firmly among the pigeons.
Il Corriere dello Sport is already contemplating a scenario whereby Matchday 18 in Serie A ends with the front-running duo of Juve and Roma separated by the same one-point distance as they are today, but with the chasing pack having gained on them. If Napoli and Lazio were to claim victory they would be within seven of the summit, still a long way back granted but with the campaign not yet at its halfway point, it's close enough to keep dreams alive. Both have cause to believe they can upset the applecart.
Back in the summer, Lazio made a smart appointment in Stefano Pioli and recruited well, strengthening in every department. They expected to be in the conversation for a top-six finish. Even so, the Eagles have flown a little under the radar this season, in part because the media spotlight has been focused almost entirely on Roma. The distraction has allowed Pioli to work in relative peace and quiet and under less scrutiny. Lazio's absence from Europe has also given him more time to work on the training ground and kept his players fresh, a competitive advantage that Napoli, for example, can't call upon.
Lazio are also Italy's most in-form team at the moment. No club has a better record than their three wins and a draw since the beginning of December. Had they held on to their 2-0 half-time lead at Inter in the last game before Christmas, they would have been alone in the bronze medal position. Monday's 3-0 dismantling of Sampdoria, another contender for that final Champions League spot who had only lost once up to that point in the season, was some statement. It was their best performance of the season so far.
A few things stood out. First of all, Lazio's strength in depth. Antonio Candreva, Serie A's leading assist-maker (he has seven); Keita Balde Diao, one of the league's most exciting young players; and World Cup legend Miroslav Klose all started on the bench. Candreva, it must be said, is recovering from a month on the sidelines, but in his absence, Felipe Anderson has emerged as a star. Like Paulo Dybala at Palermo, he is finally beginning to fulfil his potential and is enjoying a breakout season after a year or so of adjusting to Italian football.
The player whom Neymar used to call his "little brother" at Santos, Anderson has scored four goals and set up another four for his teammates in his last four games. "He seemed like Cristiano Ronaldo," said Samp coach Sinisa Mihajlovic after watching his team fall under Anderson's magic spells. Roma will have to pay him special attention. If Pioli finds a way to integrate Candreva back into the side and play him together with Anderson, perhaps by moving Stefano Mauri, the most prolific midfielder in Serie A, to a deeper role, then maybe Lazio could find another level.
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Their Achilles' heel has been at centre-back. Stefan de Vrij has lost several partners to injury, prompting Lorik Cana, the midfielder, to drop into defence as emergency cover, something Lazio are looking to address in the January transfer window.
If Roma fans are preoccupied by Anderson, there must be some relief at least that Senad Lulic won't be playing. Lulic scored the winner against them in the Coppa Italia final the season before last, arguably the most painful defeat in Roma's history. Much of Rudi Garcia's cult status was built on avenging that loss. "You don't play the derby," he famously said. "You win it." After achieving victory and, more importantly, immediate redemption for Roma, the charismatic Frenchman announced: "We have put the church back in the centre of the village."
Roma's football has been more prose than poetry this season. That was inevitable, even with a stronger squad, given the greater fixture congestion and endurance required following their return to Europe. You can understand it too considering the injuries and psychological blows they've suffered, as well as the added expectation and heightened pressure they're experiencing.
Romance has been substituted for realism. The 3-2 defeat to Juventus in Turin in October has made them more cynical and accepting of an "ends justify the means" approach. It no longer matters as much how they win as long as they do. Without Gervinho and Seydou Keita during the African Cup of Nations, Roma haven't been delivering outstanding performances of late but they have put together results, winning ugly and often in an agonizing manner. Their draw against Sassuolo and victories against Genoa and Udinese were not without controversy, either.
The opposite has been broadly true of Juventus. Their first-half performances against Samp and Inter were the best by any team in Serie A this season, but they didn't put the game beyond doubt, instead allowing their opponents back in to share the spoils in the second half.
This was also true in the Italian Super Cup against Napoli in Doha. The game was essentially a tango danced by Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain, who both scored braces; Juventus went ahead in normal time, again in extra time and twice had an opportunity to win the penalty shootout but lost. Andrea Agnelli was floored by it. Pavel Nedved covered his face in horror. Beppe Marotta wheeled away in agony.
The Old Lady has now won only one of her last six games. A change of system has asked more of the defence (Leonardo Bonucci looks uncomfortable outside of a back three), Andrea Pirlo has less protection behind him, while up front the team are no longer crossing as much as they once did, exasperating Fernando Llorente's goal-scoring crisis.
Revenge will be sought against Napoli, but it won't come easy. Juventus haven't emerged victorious from the San Paolo since the turn of the century and lost 2-0 there back in March. Plus, their hosts seem to have turned a corner. Even though a minor trophy, lifting the Super Cup does appear to have exorcised the demons Napoli lived with upon missing out on the Champions League group stages this season. Now they believe again. They have their swagger back. There's renewed enthusiasm, persuading the fans to return to the San Paolo and follow the team around Italy in greater numbers.
Higuain has scored four goals in his last two games and Callejon's name returned to the scoresheet for the first time since Nov. 1 in Wednesday's 4-1 win at Cesena, the sort of team Napoli slip up against. Even captain Marek Hamsik looks back to his best. If they can stay consistent and not allow speculation about Benitez's future to destabilse them, Napoli could make things very interesting at the top of Serie A over the next four months.
Juve and Roma's opponents couldn't really be in better form to take them on and perhaps take them down. It'll be a huge test of their nerve. Can they hold it? And what of Lazio and Napoli's credentials? Are they really capable of pushing on, or will they instead continue a personal duel for third?
Sunday honestly can't come around quick enough. The new year may have already been welcomed in Serie A, but the real fireworks are nearly upon us.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.