The whole city of Naples was buzzing for the big match against Juventus. Once I starting wearing a Napoli scarf every person I encountered asked if I was going to the game. At 4:00pm I accompanied my father to the Municipo, where he interviewed the mayor of Naples. The mayor was very kind and gave us two tickets in the Tribuna Autorita (Stand for the Authorities).
My father is a Napoli fan and I am a Juventino so this was clearly going to be the experience of a lifetime for us. We were so excited as we headed out to the stadium at 6:00pm. Every 200 feet there were guys selling scarves and jerseys. My dad and I went in two hours prior to kickoff and the Stadio San Paolo was already starting to fill up.
The stadium jeered loudly when Bonucci and Morata came onto the field before the warmups. Lemina came onto field, got booed, and then went back down the tunnel. Pepe Reina got his own announcement and round of applause when he came onto the field for warmups.
Agnelli, Paratici and Nedved had a nice pre-game chat on the field during warmups. The Juventus hierarchy consisting of sporting director Beppe Marotta, Pavel Nedved and President Andrea Agnelli sat in the Tribuna Autorita amongst Napoli fans, with bodyguard protection.
You could tell from watching warmups that Lorenzo Insigne wanted to score more than anything in the world. You could tell he was up to the task; he was in that zone where you know everything is clicking and you're really feeling it. I'm happy he got his goal before he got subbed off in the 40th minute due to injury.
At halftime a select few get invited into this special suite where they serve dinner and ice cream. I got to see Aureilo De Laurentiis from a distance and then Antonio Conte give an autograph to a little kid.
As the second half kicked off, there seemed to be a certain aurora among the fans. They knew the significance of this game and that they were 45 minutes from a massive victory.
A terrible pass by Hernanes led to Higuain's goal. At first I thought Buffon made the save but then I saw the ball hit the back of the net and the San Paolo absolutely erupted! Everything happened so quick. The fans were jumping around like crazy loosing their minds. Then the announcer screamed "GONZALO" and the whole stadium responded "HIGUAIN" (Watch video here: https://twitter.com/transferscalcio/status/648118737535696896). Some fans in front of me were still standing so I didn't even see Juve's goal live but that might've been a good thing because I don't think I would've been able to hold back celebrating. Such a quick response from Juventus. That goal put the San Paolo in both shock and silence.
Juventus had two good opportunities to tie up the game. Morata had a great chance at the top of the box but his first touch wasn't quite good and he put his shot wide. Then in the 83rd minute after some nice buildup play, Pogba got up for a header inside the box but didn't connect well and the ball sailed harmless over. I really think Pogba had to do better with that, at least get that header on goal.
Maurizio Sarri was pretty calm throughout the match on the sideline while Max Allegri was out near the touchline yelling instructions to his team. As time ran out, the Juventus management made their way from their seats greeted by jeers and heckling from the Napoli supporters. You could really feel the sense of pure happiness of the whole stadium. I stayed only 15 minutes after the final whistle but many fans were still in their seats chanting and signing.
It's a shame that no tickets were sold to Juventus fans for this match. So I suppose it wasn't exactly and authentic atmosphere as there wasn't numerous curses and chants towards the traveling fans but it was still great. If the Stadio San Paolo didn't have the big track around the field, the atmosphere there would be even more incredible. Back in the day when Maradona played that place must have really been unbelievable. Even with the track, my seats were really remarkable. I think it's pretty cool to see all those players we love and hate on the field in person, playing the beautiful game we all love.
My taxi driver the morning after the game called Buffon a monumental legend and he is pissed that there are so few Italians at the top Serie A clubs.
Overall, it truly was a sensational experience. I've been watching Serie A games on the weekends for as long as I can remember so to be part of the authentic atmosphere was phenomenal. If you're ever in Italy during the season make sure you go to a game. Even at the smaller stadiums, it's still a great experience.
My thoughts on individual players:
- Buffon is the calmest player on the earth with the ball at his feet.
- Chiellini and Bonucci are a towering center back pairing and are both comfortable on the ball despite how awkward Chiellini looks dribbling. Chiellini looks the furthest thing from a soccer player in person and while it is funny to watch him, he's a rock at the back.
- Evra's experience and talent is unmatched. He's calm on the ball and goes hard into every tackle; he won every header he went up for and I think he was a great signing. He should be a perfect mentor for Alex Sandro.
- Hernanes was way too slow in almost everything he did. On the 1st goal he let Insigne go right around him on the give-and-go and then the 2nd goal was his fault with that terrible pass. He seemed to be playing the regista role but I don't think that suits him well at all and he played terribly.
- Pogba was playing on the left side of the midfield diamond and at times I felt he was just too far away from the center of the park. I think he should be in the center of the midfield and setting the tempo but I suppose Allegri knows better than me. At times it seemed he was trying too hard to make something happen and overdid it with the ball. When Marchisio and Khedira return I think he won't have to carry as much weight in his shoulders and the Frenchman should be able to just play his game. But Pogba running at full stride is a sight to see, it's like a gazelle running through a field.
- Lemina played a solid game in my opinion. He played simply, defended well and of course scored the goal.
- Zaza and Dybala both seemed a bit frustrated. I think Dybala needs a bit more license to roam free and do his thing. He's almost as good at creating as he is scoring goals. Despite Morata and Mandzukic being ahead in the pecking order, I actually do think Zaza can do well in this Juve squad. He made some good runs granted most were offsides and he had two good chances and probably should've put one away.
- Cuadrado might be the best signing Juventus made this summer. And that's not a joke. Every time I've seen him play he's been a catalyst; He runs at the defense and causes problems. After being on the field for about two minutes, he tracked back to win the ball, dribbling at speed about 40 yards, and then found Pogba open in the middle who ripped a shot straight at Pepe Reina. Cuadrado is the winger that's been needed at Juve for the 4-3-3 since Conte wanted him and I think he'll reignite his career this season.
- If Daniele Rugani is only going to play in Coppa Italia matches, he has to go on loan in January. The kid played out of this world last season at Empoli and along with Romagnoli he's the future for the Azzurri defense. In my mind he should be ahead of Barzagli on the depth chart and to be honest there have been some games where I've wanted to see him start over Chiellini. Considering he hasn't made his official debut yet, I think Rugani deserves much more playing time and I hope he gets it to continue his growth.
- Pepe Reina is solid in net and the Napoli fans love him. He's a quality keeper who makes an occasional mistake.
- Koulibaly is a good center back. He reads the game well and uses his strength.
- Allan is a great player. He always has his head on a swivel, uses both feet well and of course plays great defensively. His touch is quality and he does well in tight spaces.
- Hamsik is a smart player and reads the game well. He does well pulling the string going forward.
- Insigne was just in the zone. It's a shame he had to be taken off due to injury but his goal was a thing of beauty. A great give-and-go with Higuain and he placed his shot low into the corner.
- Mertens is a great player in my opinion. Like Cuadrado, he runs at the defense with speed and makes things happen. While Cuadrado has more speed, Mertens has more skill and is a great dribbler. Personally, I prefer him over Callejon.
- Higuain is a great center forward. Despite his penalty misses, he's got that classic #9 instinct. Gonzalo is a very good dribbler for a center forward and can shoot very well with both feet. He also did a solid amount of defense work last night. The Napoli fans absolutely love him as he got the most cheers throughout the night and Gonzalo walked around to every section of the stadium to applause the fans.