They had resisted for longer than anybody expected. Week after week, the pressure on; week after week, the Serie A leaders up for the challenge. Ten weeks in a row, in fact, with Juventus turning up the heat; 10 straight wins.
But finally, on a momentous Saturday night in Italy, Napoli cracked. In need of consecutive victory No. 11, it caved in. Hours after Juventus fortified its push for a seventh consecutive league title with a dramatic late winner, Napoli saw an early 1-0 lead collapse into a 4-1 deficit at the Stadio San Paolo.
It crystallized as a 4-2 loss to Roma, so much of it against the run of play, but “the run of play” offering no consolation. If the dazed and dejected facial expressions of Napoli’s stars were any indication, they knew the consequences. They knew this was the slip-up they couldn’t afford.
Lorenzo Insigne had set them on their way toward No. 11. The dazzling Italian winger struck inside six minutes. In effect, he had cancelled out Paulo Dybala’s stoppage-time goal in Rome an hour earlier. But before Naples could conclude its celebrations, Cengiz Under hit back on the break, a deflected shot looping over Pepe Reina.
And then everything came crashing down, scenes out of Maurizio Sarri’s worst nightmares. Edin Dzeko rose above Napoli’s defense for 2-1. At the other end, chances went begging. Shots whistled wide. And in the second half, another one from Dzeko left the San Paolo eerily silent:
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Diego Perotti piled on the misery six minutes later. Four of Roma’s five shots on target had found the back of the net. The hosts, on the under hand, put 13 of their 26 efforts on frame, but only twice found a way past Brazilian shot-stopper Alisson.
Napoli still sits atop the league table, as it has for the vast majority of a so-far outstanding season. But for the first time, it is no longer in control. Juve is. The reigning champs have a game in hand. They also have six big Scudetto trophies that suggest they won’t relinquish control anytime soon.
And if they don’t – assuming they don’t – Saturday will be remembered as the night Serie A’s first true title race in six years turned back to where it came from. Back to Juventus. Back to the king.
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