Ezequiel Lavezzi of SSC Napoli reacts during the UEFA Champions League Group A match between SSC Napoli and Manchester City FC at Stadio San Paolo in Naples, Italy. Napoli face Juventus on Tuesday, November 29, 2011. (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)

Napoli Vs. Juventus, 2011 Serie A: All Even At 3-3 In Possibly The Best Serie A Match Of The Season

Juventus engineered a fantastic comeback against Napoli to stay unbeaten in a thrilling match against Napoli.

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Napoli Vs. Juventus, 2011 Serie A: Thrilling Match Ends In 3-3 Draw

Napoli and Juventus played out a thrilling 3-3 draw at the San Paolo on Tuesday night, clearly demonstrating that Serie A needs to play more often on weekday nights. This match had it all: comeback goals, a missed penalty, speed, thrills, a bouquet of yellow cards, and a few hilarious mistakes.Goran Pandev scored a brace and Marek Hamsik a goal for Napoli, Alessandro Matri, Marcelo Estigarribia, and Simone Pepe each contributed for the Old Lady.

For the first fifteen minutes, it appeared as though the Twitter battle between the vesuviani and the bianconeri would be more entertaining then the match, as each side squandered possession, making careless mistakes. Then, in the 16th minute, Andrea Pirlo brought down Ezequiel Lavezzi on the edge of the area. Paolo Tagliavento immediately pointed to the spot, Hamsik stepped up and put the ball past a diving Gigi Buffon. As Hamsik prepared to celebrate, Tagliavento blew his whistle, gesturing for a retake, indicating encroachment. Of course the Slovakian missed on his second attempt, sending the ball high over the frame.

Hamsik would have his revenge, however, after less than ten minutes. A Lavezzi free kick floated tantalizingly into the box, pinged off Christian Maggio, and was headed into the back of the net by Hamsik. To the surprise of almost everyone, Pandev then joined in, scoring his first goal in the azzurri shirt when he pounced on a failed Pirlo clearance. Napoli took the 2-0 lead into halftime at the San Paolo.

But the league leaders weren't about to give up that easily. Just minutes after play resumed, Arturo Vidal sent a great ball through to Matri, lingering near the edge of the area. Morgan De Sanctis came rushing out of goal, but couldn't stop Matri's low, curving shot. Suddenly Juve were within a goal, and had 40 minutes left to play.

Instead it was Napoli that scored next, with Pandev determined to show his first wasn't a simple fluke. This goal from the Macedonian was pretty, the forward playing a bit of keepy-uppy as he spun in a circle, shaking off both Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. Buffon could do nothing to stop the ball from settling in the back of the net.

Napoli had little time to celebrate, however, with Estigarribia scoring his first bianconeri goal less than five minutes later. The Paraguayan took his shot from almost exactly the same spot as Matri had earlier in the half, prompting Napoli fans to wonder when, exactly, Salvatore Aronica would be put out to pasture. While De Sanctis is good, it's usually helpful for a team to have a defender to, well, defend.

The misery wasn't yet over for Napoli, however. Despite Walter Mazzarri making a rare defensive substitution, replacing Aronica with Federico Fernandez, the visitors came back and snatched a draw in the 79th minute. Pepe may have had a bit of a blinder in the first half, but he attempted to make up for it with his goal, taking the ball through the midfield, past two Napoli defenders, and sliding the ball on into the bottom corner.


Napoli Vs. Juventus, 2011 Serie A: Goran Pandev Scores Again For Napoli, Marcelo Estigarribia Pulls One Back, 3-2

I'll toot my own horn a bit here: when writing the preview for Napoli vs. Juventus, I mentioned that, at some point, Gigi Buffon would lose his magical touch, and the leaky defense in front of him would concede a few goals. Apparently, that night is tonight. In the 68th minute, Goran Pandev knocked in his second of the night, as Leonardo Bonucci stood and watched, and Giorgio Chiellini allowed the Napoli forward to spin around and put the ball in the back of the net. Before tonight, the Inter man hadn't scored in an azzurri kit, but his second gave Napoli a two goal lead once again.

But the lead was cut once again just four minutes later, when Marcelo Estigarribia, realizing it was a night for firsts, scored his first goal for the bianconeri. The goal came from the exact location as Alessandro Matri's earlier in the half, the edge of the area, with Morgan De Sanctis failing to block the shot.


Napoli Vs. Juventus, 2011 Serie A: Alessandro Matri Gives Juventus Hope, 2-1

We're not even five minutes into the second half and Juventus have already got a goal back, answering Napoli's two goals in the first half. Arturo Vidal sent in a perfect, beautiful ball to Alessandro Matri, who was lurking on the edge of the area. Morgan De Sanctis, for some unknown reason, dove for the ball in a manner of a baseball player stealing second. The shot from Matri curved around the Napoli keeper to find the back of the net.

Matri very nearly got himself another just minutes later, looping the ball over the head of De Sanctis, but the goal was called off when the linesman's flag went up. The partenopei, so unused to backing off the attack and playing more cautious football, might want to entertain that thought just a bit. With a 2-1 lead, a bit of defense, taking some of the pressure off the holy goalkeeper, might go quite a long way to getting those much needed three points.


Napoli Vs. Juventus, 2011 Serie A: Goran Pandev (Seriously) Makes It 2-0 For Napoli At Halftime

40 minutes in and Napoli have their second goal, scored by -- can you believe this? -- Goran Pandev. Pandev, on loan from Inter Milan, was handed a rare league start due to Edinson Cavani's injury, and has scored his first goal for the partenopei. Andrea Pirlo, who is having a shocker for Juventus today, failed to adequately clear the ball, sending it rebounding off Christian Maggio and into the path of Pandev. The Macedonian put his shot in, with Gigi Buffon unable to do anything to stop it.

Meanwhile, I'm not entirely sure who is not on a yellow at this moment, on both squads. I'm pretty sure the referee thinks his Christmas cards are late with the way he's showing cards. God help us all if he realizes red is a Christmas color. Changes are likely to occur at halftime, likely from both sides, although it will still be surprising if both clubs finish with all 11 men.


Napoli Vs. Juventus, 2011 Serie A: Hamsik Makes It 1-0, For Reals This Time

After all the excitement and debate surrounding Marek Hamsik's penalty goal, his retake and subsequent miss, it could be no one else but Marekairo who scored the first goal for Napoli against Juventus today. Ezequiel Lavezzi's free kick sailed into the area, bouncing around the scrum of blue and bianconeri shirts until it collided with Leonardo Bonucci's head. Hamsik slipped away from Giorgio Chiellini, diving forward to head the ball on into goal.

Hamsik's goal came in the 22nd minute, and the match has been more or less all Napoli in the following minutes. The azzurri shirts just keep pouring forth. Goran Pandev's low shot managed to wiggle out from beneath Gigi Buffon, but fortunately for the visitors, no one was quick enough to pounce.

Don't discount Juventus just yet, however. They've got an unbeaten record and a top-table standing to protect. Should Morgan De Sanctis so much as flinch in front of goal, Napoli could lose their lead.


Napoli Vs. Juventus, 2011 Serie A: Penalty Taken, Goal Not Given, Score Remains 0-0

Well. That's quite a way to start of the match between Napoli and Juventus, and one that certainly won't set any tongues wagging, not in the world of Italian suspicion and scandal. Camile Zuniga sent through a pass to Ezequiel Lavezzi, who managed to trap it on the edge of the box. Andrea Pirlo, taking no chances, lunged forward to catch El Pocho, bringing an immediate whistle. Marek Hamsik stepped up to the spot, sending the ball to his left, past a diving Gigi Buffon.

But then chaos ensued. The referee called back the goal, apparently for players encroaching inside the area. Of course, the next time Hamsik sent the ball sky-high, and despite players once again entering the box, the ref did not make Napoli take the penalty a third time. The score remains 0-0, and the match, already chippy between the two teams, is certainly not about to get any more friendly.


Napoli Vs. Juventus, 2011 Serie A: Lineups

Juventus have played with a single striker for months, but with Claudio Marchisio out, it appears that the Old Lady is going with two strikers instead of playing Michele Pazienza against his old team, Napoli. Left winger Macelo Estigarriba has been introduced into the team, which most likely means that Mirko Vucinic will be pushed to striker from his normal left wing position. This could also be a fluid 4-2-3-1, but who knows. Meanwhile, the case of the mystery yellow card is solved: Ezequiel Lavezzi is not suspended. However, Edinson Cavani is injured and does not start.

Juventus Lineup (4-4-2): Buffon; Lichtsteiner, Barzagli, Chiellini, Bonucci; Pirlo, Vidal, Pepe, Estigarribia; Vucinic, Matri

Napoli Lineup (3-4-2-1): De Sanctis; Campagnaro, Cannavaro, Aronica; Maggio, Inler, Gargano, Zuniga; Hamsik, Lavezzi; Pandev

The match kicks off at 2:45 pm ET, 8:45 pm local time in Italy. You can catch it live on FOX Soccer Channel if you live in the USA.


The Skill Of Alessandro Matri, And Why Antonio Conte Should (But Won't) Get Creative In Marchisio's Absence

During the second half of last season and in the beginning of the 2011-12 Serie A season, Alessandro Matri has simply been a revelation for Juventus. Between Alessandro Del Piero's natural aging, Fabio Quagliarella's terrible luck with injuries, and the combined form, fitness and attitude issues with Amauri and Vicenzo Iaquinta, the Old Lady were without a reliable striker for quite some time. Now, they have a reliable man up top and it's made all the difference.

Matri has been just one of a number of additions to the Juventus squad, but his play has arguably been the catalyst to their run to the top of the table. Claudio Marchisio and Gigi Buffon were already at the club, while Andrea Pirlo is not the kind of player who can turn a game on its head at any second.

Strikers are so highly valued - arguably overvalued - for this reason. It doesn't help that goals are what the average fan pays attention to and that goal-scorers sell shirts, but Matri's impact and the impact of other quality strikers is not just about the fact that they put the ball in the back of the net, it's that they can do something to change the complexion of a game instantly. Pirlo can get the best out of a talented squad and dictate play for 90 minutes, but he cannot turn coal into diamonds in a split second like Matri can. This is why he, not Pirlo, is the biggest reason for Juventus's turnaround.

They have not been the best team for 90 minutes in all of their wins this season. In fact, it is not unreasonable to argue that they have not been the better side for more than 45 minutes in a majority of their wins. They are a very good team that can become a dominant team as their personnel has time to mesh, but they are not currently a dominant team. They are a very good team, benefiting from the facts that Inter Milan are not a good team, AC Milan just became a great team, and Napoli are hot and cold. This is why they are on top of the table, along with Matri's ability to turn games.

But he doesn't just turn games with his goals. Yes, Matri is the team's co-leader with five league goals on the season, but finishing isn't even Matri's greatest quality. He is a great scorer of goals, but he is not a great goal-scorer. He is not an Antonio Di Natale, David Villa or Javier Hernandez. Matri plays his best with his back to goal, and his value is much more in his touch and his distribution than in his goal-scoring.

In that way, he's much like Wayne Rooney at Manchester United. With Paul Scholes aging, Javier Hernandez looking for a playmaker and no true No. 10 in the side, Alex Ferguson made a bold move last season. He took the player who was previously thought of as his best striker and put him in an attacking midfield position, utilizing his playmaking ability and giving him a more free role. It worked to perfection.

Is this the kind of role Antonio Conte should play Matri in on a regular basis? No, almost certainly not. He's an excellent back-to-goal striker and he's had great success in that role. However, with Claudio Marchisio out for the match against Napoli due to suspension, Conte is probably best off getting creative, rather than sticking in a faux-like-for-like replacement.

Former Napoli man Michele Pazienza will probably start in the absence of Marchisio. This will probably push Arturo Vidal further up the pitch as Juventus keeps a very similar formation and attempts to play the same way. Pazienza is a respectable enough player who will make a couple of very nice tackles during a game. He will probably not give the ball away in dangerous positions. He's a solid veteran who doesn't make mistakes. 

But with Andrea Pirlo in midfield, is another player whose main function is to simply not screw up necessary? There's no better player in the world at holding the ball than Pirlo. With Vidal in the team, is a ball-winner needed? Vidal is a brilliant tackler, a tireless worker and a fantastic athlete that accounts for Pirlo's general lack of the latter two qualities. Pazienza simply has no purpose in this match, which is not to be disrespectful to him. Once again, he's a fine player. He's just a fine player that serves a minimal purpose in a midfield with Pirlo and Vidal.

If Conte agrees with those sentiments and doesn't want to go with Pazienza, then the next logical option is to throw on Fabio Quagliarella and go with a 4-4-2, or move Mirko Vucinic inside, bring in one of Juve's many wingers, and do the same thing. The problem is, that plays right into Napoli's hands. Their three-man back has, predictably, shut down teams playing 4-4-2 and struggled with one and three striker systems. 

And this is where Matri and the "Rooney Role" comes in. If Matri is brought back into the midfield and a striker is inserted, it creates inherent matchup problems for Walter Mazzarri's system and personnel. Napoli simply wouldn't be able to keep pressure on Pirlo, deny service to the feet of Matri, and track the slashing inside runs of Juve's wide players. 

Instead, Conte will start Michele Pazienza. He will have an average game. Unless Matri has a blinder from his center forward position, it will be a missed opportunity. The public will be left to wonder what could have been, except they will ask the wrong question.

What would this game have been like with Marchisio?

That question is purely hypothetical and absolutely pointless, because Marchisio was never available for selection. There was nothing that Conte could have done to make him available. There's a much better question to be asked.

What was Conte's best option to replace Marchisio?

Against Napoli, probably not Michele Pazienza.

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