Napoli began 2014 on a positive note, getting back to winning ways by recording the first victory against Sampdoria since Siniša Mihajlović took over. Monday's match showcased just what a danger Dries Mertens is - in case you were still on the fence - and established that Napoli are not prepared to quietly accept a third-place finish.
But Hellas Verona won't be prepared to play nice. They may have just returned to Serie A, but they're rather enjoying their fifth place position and the chatter about the side. Besides, when have Verona ever been described as "nice"?
A Nasty Welcome
In case you hadn't noticed, Verona are doing quite well at home. In fact, the only time they've dropped points was against rivals Chievo, likely because they underestimated the Flying Donkeys. Hellas may have had a rather weak home schedule in the first half of the season, but eight wins is still rather impressive.
And so the intimidation factor, the hostility that meets opposing sides that step on to the Bentegodi pitch, is nothing to be sneered at -- particularly in this case. Napoli and Verona are not too fond of each other, shall we say. The rivalry surrounding these two sides has little to do with football and everything to do with the actions of the Hellas ultras. With their tendency toward racism and their hatred of southern Italy, they've certainly turned on Napoli supporters in the past. It's been awhile since the two clubs met and Verona ultras haven't done anything too outrageous thus far this season, but they're certainly not going to be laying out the welcome mat.
Breaking the Bentegodi
And so Napoli must plunge into the cauldron that is the Bentegodi and emerge unscathed. Not just for pride, but because the top of the Serie A table isn't making most of us feel comfortable. Due to Roma's loss to Juve, the partenopei are now within three points of second, but they're not going to lose to a Genoa side without Alberto Gilardino. No, the concern lies with Fiorentina, who with the right result can sneak up to pull even with Napoli in third.
Reviewing last week's match
Reviewing last week's match
What's been made clear recently is that, with Marek Hamšík seemingly set to get his death certificate signed*, the trio operating behind Gonzalo Higuaín must be Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens and José Callejón. While Goran Pandev has managed to score six goals this season, he doesn't have the same creative presence and spark that these three do - and he's certainly not hassling defenses in the same manner.
*Marekiaro has actually been called up for the Verona match. But don't get too excited just yet.
Hellas Verona are not just a newly-promoted side. They've got strength, they've got a decent attack and they've got the home turf. Rafa Benítez must not underestimate them and must use Napoli's best players now, rather than preserve them for the Coppa match against Atalanta midweek. Let's just hope he's aware of that.
There's not a lot of choices to be made elsewhere. In a poignant moment of symmetry, Rafael will take his place between the sticks, opposite Rafael in goal for Verona. Anthony Réveillère has proved to be little upgrade on Pablo Armero, and there's no backup in the rest of defense. With Valon Behrami out for two months, there's no choice but to pop in Blerim Džemaili alongside Gokhan Inler, although with the way Dzei played last week it might be better to give Josip Radošević a few more minutes.
That's the sort of defense that can make one shiver. Unfortunately, in Jorginho and Juan Manuel Iturbe, Verona have a youthful energy that's resulted in 12 goals thus far. Plus, they've got Luca Toni, and the 36 year old is proving he's still got a little gas in the tank, having scored 9 while providing 6 assists. It's unlikely this Napoli side can close out Hellas completely, especially at home. That makes it even more imperative that the partenopei attack is at its best, right from the starting whistle.
Do the right thing, Rafa.
Verona: 5th, 10W 2D 6L
Napoli: 3rd, 12W 3D 3 L
Verona Injuries and Suspensions
Ezequiel Cirigliano (injured)
Napoli Injuries and Suspensions
Valon Behrami, Paolo Cannavaro, Marek Hamšík, Giuseppe Mesto, Camilo Zúñiga
Despite this being the biggest clash of the weekend, you'll be hard pressed to find a way to watch. In Italy it's on Premium Calcio, but it's not on TV in the US, Canada or UK. If you're in the first of those two and have access, you can watch on beIN Sport Play. If you're in a country where it's legal to bet, you can catch the action on bet365 if you've got an account.