By 90Min
March 02, 2019

It has been billed as a Scudetto 'showdown'. But, in actual fact, and even though Juventus are 13 points ahead of Napoli in the Serie A table, Sunday's clash at the Stadio San Paolo could have a whole lot more riding on it than that. 

This is because the future of Italy's premier division is on a knife edge right now, and while a result either way would not concretely set the needle (or knife - a bit like Arya's in GoT?) in one direction, it could provide a nice barometer. 

As you can imagine, Juventus' domestic domination has been a problem for the league of late. Seven titles in a row, and an eighth almost certainly incoming does not make for the best business in a game where surprise and intrigue are key ingredients.

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This has translated to a dearth in stadium attendances (though these are slowly on the mend, and have other infrastructural issues at play) and viewing figures, particularly overseas. According to findings from a PricewaterhouseCoopers study, overseas viewers comprised just 18% of Serie A's audience between 2014 and 2017.

While the Premier League is very much in a league of its own in this regard, this is still considerably lower than shares for the Bundesliga (26%) and La Liga (41%). This lack of success has been put down to the inflated price of their tv rights, as well as a subsequent lack of capitalisation on the addition of Cristiano Ronaldo. 

But, both attendance and viewers have undoubtedly been affected by this drawn-out period of Bianconeri superiority. In theory, we should now be in the dying days of this dynasty. But are we? 

A massive factor in the Old Lady's towering success has been their canny transfer dealings and their combination of constant redevelopment alongside a sustained loyalty to the tried and trusted. 

While the rearguard has remained practically unchanged, especially centrally, the cream of Italy's attacking crop have been continuously plucked from the grasp of their underlings. From Paulo Dybala and Federico Bernardeschi to Gonzalo Higuain and Miralem Pjanic, their gains have always had the added bonus of detracting from their rivals.

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In today's financially reliant footballing world, success breeds success. Juve's domestic triumphs and storied (without being triumphant) European endeavours have enabled them to splash cash like no other in Italy. But it has also enabled them to continuously snag free agents from the world over. 

There are literally too many incredible free signings to be named, but the highlights include Pirlo, Paul Pogba, Kingsley Coman, Sami Khedira, Dani Alves and Emre Can, with Aaron Ramsey hot on their tail. 

No other team in Italy, let alone the footballing world (save for, say, Celtic or Paris Saint-Germain, which is the problem), could rely on such a model to this extent. Which takes us back to the initial question - how can this be stopped? Well, Juve's alluded-to Champions League struggles have pushed the club to deviate from their pre-existing model somewhat. 

While previously there always seemed to be an appreciation of the future in every move they made, last summer could only be described as a circumvention of these ideals. A collective €152m was spent on a 31-year-old and a 33-year-old alone. 

The deal for one of these (Leonardo Bonucci) meant the sacrifice of the club's previous record transfer (Gonzalo Higuain) AND their most promising young centre half (Mattia Caldara).

And it goes far deeper than that - a staggering four of their top 10 most expensive signings of all time were made last summer, the mean age of which now stands at 29.25 years old. That's hardly long term thinking.

Now, that's not to say that some of their rivals were not making similarly strange decisions - indeed, Inter's capture of Radja Nainggolan involving the loss of sudden superstar Nicolo Zaniolo is perhaps an even greater fiasco than the Bonucci deal. 

But, the tide of talent does seem to be turning. Both Milan and Inter are steadily resurgent, despite a couple of setbacks, with AC looking especially formidable going into the next few seasons, after the shrewd captures of Caldara and Krzysztof Piatek, and the potential one of Tiemoue Bakayoko. 

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Fiorentina and Roma, meanwhile, possess the kind of burgeoning youth players that, well, money can buy, but it would have to be an absolute boat load. In short, Juve can't conceivably hamper every single one of these upstarts.

That was all without mentioning the other team that crop up in the title of this piece - Napoli. While Carlo Ancelotti has thus far been unable to maintain Maurizio Sarri's challenge from last season, they remain the best of the rest, and the great man himself has apparently seen more than enough this campaign to suggest that the Partenopei will ready a more significant charge in 2019/20. 

Unlike their rivals, the majority of their summer 2018 business was future-orientated, while the resolution of their ugly stadium situation can't come soon enough. Though a win this Sunday would, in 99.9% of all likelihood merely prolong Juve's title celebrations, it could lay down a marker for the future of the league. 

One man who isn't buying this 'title showdown' is Jose Mourinho. As quoted by France 24, from an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport, he proclaimed: "The race has finished too quickly. Juventus aren't facing much of a challenge, and while that's obviously good for them, it's a negative for Italian football."

And he's right, of course. The contrast of Juve's invincibility domestically and frailty (as it stands) in Europe is not a good look for Calcio.

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But that quote is also interesting because it simultaneously encapsulates the problem facing Italian football while foreshadowing a potential solution. Mourinho is currently the odds-on second favourite to takeover the job at Inter, behind Antonio Conte. But, if the Portuguese were to take the Nerazzurri job, then the Italian could be forced to switch his attentions to the other side of Milan. 

Were both to take up these posts, with Diego Simeone in hot pursuit following his contract's end, then Italy could once again boast a managerial roster to envy the world, with the prevailing incentive for any incoming manager of this ilk being the toppling of the Old Lady.


If the talent on and off the field outside Turin can continue to grow, then this could be realised, but Juve's financial prosperity means plenty more mistakes will have to be made in the transfer window, hopefully (in the others' minds) starting with Ramsey. 

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Sunday's result won't necessarily alter or portend to any of this. But it will serve as a measure for hope. A Juve win would mean a 16-point lead, and a demoralised chasing pack. A win for Napoli is a win for Serie A and a beacon of light from which others can draw from. 

While it promises to be a fascinating encounter, there's no doubt the men upstairs will be hoping it leads to more of such occasions than less. Italian football is counting on it.

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