Whilst it is looking increasingly inevitable that Juventus will win this season's scudetto, the maelstrom below them is looking less certain, with prime European places up for grabs.
It is well-documented that qualifying for Europe's premier club competition is vastly superior to a season in the Europa League, recently described as the "ugly kid brother" by Liverpool's Steven Gerrard (as documented by The Independent's Ian Herbert). The money and prestige on offer is unrivalled.
The chasm between the two teams is currently 10 points and with the momentum in Napoli's favour, it could be a lot more. Having won four of their last six league games, they head into this game knowing that a win would create a gargantuan void of 13 points.
For several reasons though, this would not be insurmountable for Fiorentina to overcome before the 2013/14 season ends. Let's take a look at the reasons why.
For starters, Napoli have ambitions beyond the league. Between now and the weekend, they compete in the Europa League as they seek to overturn a 1-0 deficit against former Champions League winners Porto, if they are to gain a place in the last eight. This should not present too many challenges.
Porto sit third in the Primera Liga, 12 points off leaders Benfica. They have just lost to second-placed Sporting Lisbon and, relying heavily on the goals of Jackson Martinez, look a shadow of their former selves. With the second leg in Naples, scoring two (or three) without reply won't be difficult. It is for occasions like this that Rafael Benitez was poached, possessing proven European pedigree.
If they were to progress, one suspects Benitez would scent silverware and the chance to win successive Europa League trophies with different clubs.
Fiorentina, meanwhile, also have to contend with Europa League travails, albeit against domestic opponents, Juventus. With the score 1-1 from the first leg, La Viola now have home advantage—who desires progression more though? Having essentially sewn up the league, Juve could complement it with their first European trophy since 1996. Quite a coup.
Whilst nobody doubts Fiorentina's chances, victory could be a stretch too far, leaving them to concentrate on overtaking Napoli. And in Vincenzo Montella, they have a manager who has the instinct to do that.
Heralded as one of Europe's great young managerial hopes, he possesses a win ratio of 57 percent after 80 games in charge. If he continues on this upward trend, he may soon garner the affections of the continent's leading clubs.
In his pre-match press conference this week, he dismissed the notion of one day managing Juventus (h/t Football Italia) but qualifying for the Champions League would certainly raise his pedigree.
Tactically, it will be interesting to see how these teams approach this game. In their recent 1-0 win over Roma, Napoli deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation: Whilst Gonzalo Higuain is the intended focal point, the trident of attacking talent behind him is just as lethal, registering 13 shots in total.
If Fiorentina are to win this encounter, they will need to nullify the threat from effectively four strikers (Higuain, Jose Callejon, Dries Mertens and trequartista Marek Hamsik).
Fiorentina though have the ability to play with attacking verve or a more left-field formation. In their last league outing, a 3-1 against Chievo, they deployed 3-5-1-1, where the defenders sat deep and soaked up any pressure, allowing midfielders to press on and support the lone striker Alessandro Matri.
In the proceeding game to that, the first leg stalemate with Juve, they set up with a 4-1-2-1-2, as David Pizarro and Borja Valero successfully stationed themselves as the sharp points of a diamond. The league game prior to that—a 1-0 defeat to Juve—Fiorentina took to the field with a fluid 4-3-3 formation, the two Juans (Cuadrado and Vargas) assisting Mario Gomez.
Switching from one formation to another does not equal success but it does show versatility, something that Napoli seemingly lack, having used a 4-2-3-1 in their last four games.
Because of the form they are in, the odds are stacked in Napoli's favour. But, should they drop points, Fiorentina should not lose heart: With nine games remaining, they could still overcome a potential 13-point difference.
Out of the two, Napoli have the less-desired run-in: As well as having to host Lazio, resurgent Verona and runaway leaders Juventus, they must also travel to Sampdoria and Inter Milan. Defeat here could spark a slump, particularly should they progress in the Europa League.
Furthermore, the goals are drying up. On just three occasions in their last 10 games have they scored more than once. And with only four clean sheets in that time, they can't continue to rely on winning 1-0 (as they have done in their last two games).
Fiorentina, conversely, can play with reduced pressure. Their run-in does include hosting Milan and Roma, but they also get to play three of the league's bottom four clubs. In addition, they have a Coppa Italia final to look forward to—against, you guessed it, Napoli.
Fans and players of the club will additionally be buoyed by reports this week on the club's website (in Italian) that beleaguered striker Giuseppe Rossi, scorer of 14 goals in 18 games, is making progress from his latest knee injury and could return before the end of the season.
Expect an entertaining match-up but do not expect the final Champions League spot to be won or lost here.
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