Fabio Cannavaro returns to his native city tonight, curious about what sort of reception he will be given. Cannavaro is a proud Neapolitan, the captain of his country, the leader who lifted the last World Cup for Italy, and a man with league titles in two different countries to his name. At least Juventus' Cannavaro should get a warm greeting from his brother, Paolo, who plays for Napoli. He may even be anticipating more generous applause from rival fans at the San Paolo that he has recently been hearing from the followers of Juve.
Cannavaro and his club have had a dreadful fortnight going into tonight's Serie A fixture. The Italy captain was sent off in the first half of what proved a chastening and extraordinary visit to London seven days ago in the Europa League, where a 1-0 lead would be wiped out by four Fulham goals and a 3-1 advantage from the first leg would prove insufficient to prevent Juve's elimination. Four days earlier, Juve had been three goals up after 10 minutes against Siena and finished the game with a point.
Three days after the Fulham shock, they lost to Sampdoria, the club's 10th defeat in Serie A this season. Cannavaro marshalls a defence that has conceded more goals than any team except Genoa in the division's top eight clubs, and that is a bad omen for a side aiming to finish above Genoa, Napoli, Palermo and Fiorentina, and grasp a place in the top four, and with it Champions League status for the next campaign.
As alarming for Alberto Zaccheroni, the head coach, is the poor grip Juve have on their leads. Ten times this season they have gone ahead in matches and not finished the game with a victory. Fatigue overcomes an ageing side easily, and Cannavaro, 36, is in the spotlight in this regard, finding his advanced years counting against him. So do David Trezeguet, in and out of the team with injuries, Mauro Camoranesi, Hasan Salihamidzic, Jonathan Zebina, who had a tetchy exchange with travelling fans at Fulham, and Nicola Legrottaglie.
Talk of a clearout in the summer has been prompted by Juve's poor form and the fact that Zaccheroni, whose contract expires in June, looks more and more like a caretaker, appointed as he was only two months ago after the departure of Ciro Ferrara. Nor is age the only motive for a reshaping of the Juve squad. Fabio Grosso and Felipe Melo have not been popular signings, and Diego's early promise has been fulfilled only in cameos.
"We will not be distracted by all this speculation," said Roberto Bettega, the Juve executive director and former player. Nor, he said, would Juve encourage suggestions that to raise funds for an overhaul, they would consider selling their goalkeeper Gigi Buffon, who is injured at present but is valued at something over ?30 million (Dh148.5m). Vicenzo Iaquinta, the striker, Salihamidzic, the midfielder, and the defender Martin Caceres are also on the injury-list, Legrottaglie is suspended and Momo Sissoko, their midfield anchor, has flown to Paris following a family bereavement. Alex del Piero has also been nursing a sprained ankle ahead of tonight, a match against a direct rival for fourth spot and one which risks reminding Juve of their particular Achilles heel in this campaign.
In October, in Turin, Juventus led 2-0 against Napoli and allowed the advantage to fizzle into defeat, a performance that significantly undermined Ferrara's reign. "We have been falling away in the second half of games," admitted Zaccheroni, "but it is not because of a lack of commitment, for which I cannot fault the players. Against Sampdoria, players were working hard, and you saw many of them suffering from cramps at the end. Some have had to play without being in peak condition."
And some, he must suspect, are already too deep into the twilight of their careers. @Email:email@example.com Napoli v Juventus, 11.45pm, Aljazeera Sport + 1