Juventus are looking their typical, imperious, ruthless selves, as Italy enters double figures for its league matches this season. The Bianconeri have won nine, and drawn one, of their 10 Serie A fixtures, whilst they are strolling through their Champions League group with ease.
Already they look like they are well on their way to an eighth consecutive Scudetto and, with the addition of one Cristiano Ronaldo, they have shortened their odds for Champions League success. The domestic juggernauts look almost unstoppable, but every narrative has a character who challenges the protagonist, who puts a twist in the tale, and maybe someone can push them close.
The main contenders currently occupy the two positions below: six points adrift. Inter and Napoli – the ‘best-of-the-rest’. But who, if either of them, can mount a serious challenge. In fairness to both sides, they are currently in a state of evolution, whereas Juventus are at their relentless pomp.
Inter, though they are four points adrift of this stage last season, have shown some positive signs as they continue their resurgence back to the elite. Grinding out results, grabbing last minute winners – things they may have not done in recent years. After a slow start, Luciano Spalletti’s side found their rhythm and went on a superb seven-game winning streak, which is now eight wins in nine – with an away defeat to Barcelona the only small blemish on an impressive record.
At times they have had to dig deep, but they have managed to find that little bit of quality late on to get them through. The magnificent turnaround against Tottenham in the Champions League, the late winner against Milan, the late winner against Sampdoria – these are not just down to luck, they are a side that will fight to the end.
In seasons gone by, they may not have come back against Spurs, against PSV. They may not have snatched those last gasp winners in the league. But this season it feels different and, though they probably don’t have enough in the tank to usurp Juventus, they are certainly moving in the right direction.
With Napoli it is a similar story. They are currently six points off where they were at this stage last season, but it was always going to be difficult to replicate their phenomenal season under Maurizio Sarri, where they pushed Juventus all the way. Yet there is a vibrancy about them this year, a positivity injected by Carlo Ancelotti.
He has tried to move Napoli away from that single-styled dependency of the Sarri era: the 4-3-3 with the same 11 every week. Ancelotti flits between this and a 4-4-2, rotating the personnel. A more manageable, long-term vision, giving them more options, which the squad have embraced. Typically, he has brought excitement going forward, coupled with the odd bout of erratic defending. But the Partenopei are clicking into gear, particularly, perhaps unsurprisingly, in Europe, because of Ancelotti’s penchant for the Champions League.
Many felt they had been dealt a tough hand, being drawn with Liverpool and PSG, and a lot of people would have predicted those two to advance. But with a win against Liverpool in Naples and a fantastic point, which should have been three, in Paris, they are very much in contention going into the final three group games.
Unfortunately for them, the draw to Roma on Sunday meant they slipped back to six-points adrift, after the gap was tightened following Juventus’ surprise draw to Genoa a week ago. If either team is to challenge Juve this season, they need to make the most of any slip up the serial-champions have. But, alas, neither side looks as if they are capable just yet of maintaining a title challenge.
So, although this season may be beyond Inter and Napoli, both in their own way are showing they are developing for the better. With a few more shrewd signings each, with a bit more time to get everything to click, they could certainly challenge Juventus in years to come. But this season, may just be too much of a stretch for both sides.