Aiming to return to the Serie A summit – for a couple of hours, at least – Scudetto contenders Napoli welcome mid-table Udinese to Stadio Maradona on Saturday afternoon.
With leaders Milan not kicking off until the evening, Luciano Spalletti’s side can go top with a win, but an increasingly resilient away side will stand in their path.
Having established himself as Napoli’s go-to man throughout the course of this season, Victor Osimhen once again delivered the goods when needed last week, as his double strike at Verona returned the southern giants to winning ways.
In the process of winning just one of their previous six games, the Partenopei had suffered critical losses to both Barcelona in the Europa League and title rivals Milan in Serie A, but victory in Veneto keeps them within three points of top spot; while boasting a superior goal difference to the Rossoneri.
Defending champions Inter are also breathing heavily on their shoulder, so Napoli’s hopes of a first Scudetto in more than three decades rely on taking maximum points from games such as this weekend’s.
Comfortable 4-0 winners in September’s reverse fixture – when Osimhen was again on target at the Dacia Arena – the Campanian club have also won their last seven Serie A home games against Udinese, so precedent will weigh heavily on their side before kickoff.
However, including their defeat to Milan, Napoli have now lost four of their last seven home games in the top flight – suffering as many losses during that spell as in their previous 35 matches at Stadio Maradona. That trend must surely be brought to a halt if they are to lift some overdue silverware come May.
Udinese’s Destiny Udogie celebrates scoring their first goal with teammates on February 25, 2022© Reuters
Without a win in their last 11 league games against Saturday’s opponents – their last victory over Napoli coming during the 2016-17 campaign – Udinese’s record of 10 losses in that time certainly suggests they are outsiders to prevail this time around.
The Friuliani have also scored just one goal in their last four away games in Serie A – though Destiny Udogie’s controversial late equaliser against Milan could ultimately prove decisive in the title race. Yet a flicker of hope remains, due to their recent form.
Sandwiching their victory over struggling Sampdoria a fortnight ago with draws against Milan and Roma, the Bianconeri will arrive in Naples unbeaten in four matches, which sees them sitting 14th in the standings – eight points clear of the relegation zone.
Though they have still not managed to post back-to-back wins in Serie A since September after Roma’s latest stoppage-time comeback last time out, under new coach Gabriele Cioffi, Udinese have been stabilised and fears of demotion continue to diminish.
Indeed, they still retain at least one game in hand on their bottom-half counterparts following a series of COVID-19 cancellations around the turn of the year, so Cioffi should be confident of steering his side to safety.
Bringing to an end a tough run of fixtures over the past month, the Bianconeri’s trip to Napoli will be followed more winnable fixtures against Cagliari, Venezia, Empoli and Bologna after the international break.