Cast your mind back a few months to the home victory over Inter and Napoli were clear at the top for the first time since their title winning season of 1990. Gonzalo Higuaín’s declaration in January that the team,‘wanted the Scuddetto’ did not feel too misplaced largely thanks his own record breaking run of form which would see him break Cavani’s goal scoring record in April.
But after an emotional meltdown in Udinese, a team who before Sunday's game had collectively scored fewer goals than Higuaín, ‘the little donkeys’ would probably be more than content with a second place finish.
Massimiliano Irrati, the referee bore the brunt of the team’s frustrations during the match as they failed to close the gap on leaders Juventus. First Maurizio Sarri lost his head and was sent off for the 4thtime this season (surely now closing in on the record) and then the talismanic Higuaín pushed and berated Irrati after he had shown him a second yellow for a needless trip on an Udinese player.
Tears were visible on the face of Higuaín as he was escorted off the field. The pressure had taken its toll. Napoli’s best player will now likely miss a large chunk of the remaining fixtures and he and his team had lost their nerve in a must-win game. The Juventus juggernaut’s 21-game unbeaten run in the league had seen them catch and eclipse Napoli at the top of Serie A, with only 7 games left. This unrelenting pace had worn down the Azzurri, leaving them frustrated and angry that the wait for a 3rd league title will go on past the 2015/16 season.
Sarri admitted in his post-match press conference that Juventus were in their heads. ’What Juventus are doing in the league is amazing; the pace they set makes it almost impossible for their title contenders.’ He added that playing after Juventus in the past 6 league games since the two sides met on February the 13th had also taken its toll on his team. ‘6 out of 6 is a bad thing, they have made us spend more energy.’
In those games Juventus have continued to amass points only offering slight respite with an away draw at Bologna while Napoli dropped points against Milan and Fiorentina before the loss on Sunday. It leaves them with a Vesuvius sized mountain to climb and one which certainly appears beyond them. It is difficult to imagine a team packed with battle hardened Scudetto winners like Juventus imploding like Napoli did in such did a vital game. They boast not only the larger more talented squad but the ingrained championship winning nous to carry them over the line.
As far as Napoli are concerned, addressing their inability to hold their nerve under pressure and cut out the defensive errors that plagued them against Udinese will be key in how they bounces back from this defeat both against Verona next week and next season. Topping the table must now be nothing more than a distant memory for Sarri's team and with Roma’s 4-1 victory over Lazio on Sunday they may instead start looking back over their shoulders in the weeks to come.