First it was Cristiano Ronaldo. Then came Simeon “Simy” Tochukwu Nwankwo.
Two weeks after Ronaldo’s spectacular bicycle kick helped Real Madrid eliminate Juventus from the Champions League, a similar overhead effort has left the Bianconeri’s march toward a record-extending seventh Serie A title suddenly seem precarious.
The audacious equalizer from the Nigerian forward helped relegation-threatened Crotone to a 1-1 draw with Juventus on Wednesday and reduced the Turin squad’s advantage over second-place Napoli to four points entering Sunday’s top-of-the-table matchup.
A Napoli win at Allianz Stadium would reduce the gap to only one point with four games to go in the only real remaining title race in Europe’s five major leagues.
Manchester City has already clinched the Premier League title, Bayern Munich has wrapped up its sixth straight Bundesliga championship and Paris Saint-Germain has won the French league. Meanwhile, Barcelona is poised to take the Spanish trophy this weekend.
🦈 Crotone 1⃣🆚1⃣ Juventus 🦓
⚽ Simy 🇳🇬pic.twitter.com/Wg8l8uvz3r
— JuveFCid 🦓 (@JuveFCid) 18 April 2018
“We were chickens to allow that goal,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said of Simy’s score. “It wasn’t our night.
“But now we’ve got to focus on Napoli. I wouldn’t sign for a draw. We’ve got to play to obtain the maximum. By winning we’ll take a big step forward. Anyhow the season won’t end on Sunday.”
At one point on Wednesday, when Napoli trailed Udinese (before eventually winning 4-2) and Juventus led in Crotone, it seemed that Juventus could clinch on Sunday by beating Napoli.
Now, Napoli is again dreaming of its first title since Diego Maradona led the southern club to its only two Serie A championships in 1987 and 1990.
“We reached our club goal of qualifying for the Champions League a week ago and now we’re at least assured of finishing second so now we can have some fun,” Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri said.
On paper, Juventus has the tougher schedule over the last four rounds, with visits to Inter Milan and Roma. Napoli’s toughest post-Juve test could come at Fiorentina a week later or at home in the last game against a Crotone side fighting relegation.
Juventus won 1-0 at Napoli in December courtesy of an early goal from former Napoli striker Gonzalo Higuain. That defeat was a devastating blow for Sarri’s free-flowing tactics _ which have drawn admiration from Man City coach Pep Guardiola.
Don’t expect any change in tactics this time around.
“We know that it’s going to be a difficult match but we’re not going to change our philosophy,” Sarri said. “We always try to impose our play and we’ll attempt to do so even in such a tough stadium to play in.
“It’s just as difficult to play there as playing in Manchester against City or in Madrid against Real or in Paris against PSG.”
While Napoli’s biggest weakness this season has been its thin bench _ and Sarri’s refusal to use reserves _ the Partenopei have been boosted recently by the return of Poland center forward Arkadiusz Milik after a second serious knee injury in a year.
In Milik’s absence, Dries Mertens blossomed into a consistent scorer in a “false nine” position but now Sarri has more options in attack.
“Clearly we try for more high balls with Milik and a speedier approach with Mertens,” Sarri said. “They have different physical characteristics but technically they’re both very good, so when they play together we don’t change our concepts.”
Milik scored the winner against Udinese for his second goal in three matches and fellow forward Lorenzo Insigne is also in splendid form.
Higuain, however, has not scored in the league since a victory over Atalanta more than a month ago.
While Allegri’s status is relatively secure at Juventus after six straight titles, Sarri’s stubborn approach at Napoli is in need of vindication.
Sarri was seriously criticized when he seemingly gave up on the Europa League in a Round-of-32 loss to Leipzig _ in order to focus on winning Serie A.
“Sarri will put three years of work on the line _ his revolutionary and utopian idea of play,” said an editorial in the Gazzetta dello Sport on Thursday. “He has a lot more to lose or a lot more to gain compared to Allegri.”
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines