With the 2022 World Cup now consigned to history, all eyes will inevitably fall back on the club game, with the Premier
For Serie A, things will have to wait a little longer, with the league still enjoying its traditional winter break before things kick back into motion in early January.
If some have understandably forgotten how the top of Serie A looks, Napoli are light years out in front of everyone: eight points ahead of Milan in second; 10 in front of Juve and 11 of Inter. Luciano Spalletti’s men were the talk of the opening part of the season, blowing teams away in spectacular fashion, and are still the only undefeated team left in Europe’s top five leagues.
With the season almost split into ‘two’ due to the World Cup, the biggest question mark going into the second half is what Juventus will look like.
It would be an understatement and a half to say Juve’s first part of the season was a train wreck. Out of the Champions League in the group stage for the first time since 2013, they lost five of their six matches and were humbled by Maccabi Haifa in the process.
Injuries blighted the opening three months of the season, with big summer signings Angel Di Maria and Paul Pogba mostly out or completely out, as in the case of the former. Federico Chiesa’s return was always pencilled in for late 2022, so Juve’s three most talented players weren’t in the team, and the results and performances reflected that.
However there were signs of recovery in the final few weeks before the World Cup break. Juve catapulted themselves back into the top four, despite being miles off by early October. They won six in a row and the defence, marshalled by the Brazilian trio of Bremer, Danilo and Alex Sandro, has tightened. They conceded just two goals in the six weeks leading up to the World Cup break, ensuring Allegri has something positive to build on post-Christmas.
But the mystery remains how Juve will shape up come January.
Pogba, by all reports, is closing in on a return to action. Di Maria, fresh off of winning the World Cup with Argentina, should be fit and reinvigorated by winning international football’s biggest prize.
Chiesa, meanwhile, played some minutes in the final games before the break, and with the Italian winger allowed more time to regain sharpness and return to Juve’s starting XI in his own time due to the World Cup, rather than be ushered back too quickly as would happen in any normal season.
With Chiesa, Di Maria and Pogba at full health, Juve could be a very different proposition than they were from August to November, and a title tilt cannot be ruled out. Much will depend on how seriously Allegri treats the Europa League, with the Thursday-Sunday routine problematic for a Juve squad that isn’t overly huge.
Moreover, it’s almost inevitable that Spalletti’s side will drop points in the new year. Napoli have always had sticky periods in their history, and this has proved to be more catastrophic than most in 2021-22. Should Juve keep on their coattails as winter gives way to spring, then there’s no telling how things could end up for Juventus.
However, the plusvalenza scandal keeps murmuring in the background, and this may also play a role in defining Juve’s season. A new board is set to be announced in mid January after Andrea Agnelli, Pavel Nedved and Maurizio Arrivabene all resigned.
In truth, it would be disastrous for Serie A were Juve to win the title this season, given just how poor they’ve been in the opening stretch. Napoli have captured the hearts and minds of the public, both at home and abroad, and most would like to see Diego Maradona’s former club, in addition to Spalletti, getting their hands on the title.
But Juve are looming in the background, like Mount Vesuvius, waiting to explode. And should Di Maria, Chiesa and Pogba remain injury free and hit the ground running, then the Bianconeri could ruin the party for everyone, except for the black-and-white half of Turin.
And you’d be foolish to bet against them.