By Mark Doyle
Juventus coach Antonio Conte suggested on Friday that his Napoli counterpart Rafael Benitez would not be satisfied if his side finished as runners-up in Serie A this season. On the evidence of Sunday night’s meeting between the two sides, second place is the best the Spaniard can hope for - because the Bianconeri clearly remain the No.1 side in Italy.
Napoli had arrived in Turin with high hopes of announcing themselves as legitimate title contenders. They will leave with their confidence shattered, after being swept aside by a resurgent Juventus, who move to within a point of increasingly nervy table-toppers Roma.
After back-to-back titles, there had been talk that Conte’s troops had lost some of their hunger. It was also suggested that their European struggles had knocked their self-belief.
|FROM OUR LIVE COMMENTARY|
|2'||LLORENTE PUTS JUVENTUS IN THE LEAD! It's a dream start for the Bianconeri as Llorente reacts quickest at the back post to poke the ball home. There were suspicions of offside but the goal stands.|
|74'||WHAT A STRIKE FROM PIRLO! The dead-ball specialist produces a moment of magic as he curls the ball over the wall and beyond the despairing dive of Reina into the top corner.|
|80'||WHAT A GOAL FROM POGBA! The France midfielder is renowned for some brilliant strikes and this is another to add to the collection. His first touch from Vidal's pass sets up kindly and he sends a blistering shot towards goal which cannons off the inside of the post and beyond Reina.|
Paul Pogba called Pepe Reina into action inside the opening 60 seconds. From the aftermath of the resulting corner, Juve took the lead, Fernando Llorente stabbing the ball home from close range after Mauricio Isla’s low strike had been deflected into his path by Carlos Tevez. It was an especially fortuitous strike, given that the Spaniard had been standing in an offside position. To be precise, there were 21 centimetres in it, according to Sky Sport Italia. They say that such high-profile games are decided by such small measures and so it proved, because Juve never looked back from that moment on.
They bossed Napoli during the opening 45 minutes, taking full advantage of the Partenopei’s strange tactic of standing off the Bianconeri back three, and while the visitors could count themselves unfortunate to have fallen behind in such circumstances, there was no denying that there were lucky to have reached the interval still just one goal in arrears.
Credit to Napoli - and Benitez for a presumably stirring half-time team-talk - they played with greater adventure and determination in the early stages of the second half, pressing Juventus back inside their own half. But, of the 11 Napoli players that took to the field, only Lorenzo Insigne and Reina could lay claim to having performed at their best.
By complete contrast, Juventus had star performers all over the field. Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon dealt with everything that Insigne threw at him, while Leonardo Bonucci did an excellent job keeping Gonzalo Higuain quiet. Arturo Vidal never stopped snapping at heels in midfield, while Llorente and Tevez, in particular, held the ball up wonderfully well.
However, it was Andrea Pirlo and Pogba who stood out. The latter has been criticised for some sub-standard performances this season, but after a stellar showing against Real Madrid in midweek, the veteran playmaker was back at his peerless best against Napoli, capping a wonderful display with the most expertly-executed free kick.
It felt as if there would be no topping that, but Pogba achieved the seemingly impossible with 10 minutes remaining. The 20-year-old France international audaciously teed a ball from Tevez up for himself and then unleashed the kind of searing strike that is fast becoming his trademark.
The final scoreline was harsh on Napoli but that was of no concern to Juventus. This was a job very well done as far as the Bianconeri were concerned. Three goals, three points and one serious statement of intent: Napoli and Roma are merely pretenders to the throne - and Juventus have no intention of abdicating any time soon.
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