The man with the Chuck Norris beard proved the difference between the sides as Juve went clear at the top of the Serie A table
The man with the Chuck Norris beard continues to resemble a sporting version thereof. Andrea Pirlo does not play football, he subjugates it. When an Andrea Pirlo pass appears to miss its target, that's only because his plan was too sophisticated for human brains to process. The last person to see Andrea Pirlo lose a match is a liar.
If the myth of Pirlo can get out of hand, then sometimes the reality is even more remarkable. Coming into this weekend's match against Napoli, the midfielder had genuinely not experienced defeat in a Serie A fixture for 22 months. During that spell he had joined Juventus, won the Scudetto and carried his country to the final of Euro 2012. He has even been discussed as an outside candidate for the Ballon d'Or.
But as incredible a revival as it has been for Pirlo – who was so out of favour at Milan by the time of that December 2010 defeat to Roma that he would get just six more games for them before being pushed out in the summer – there have also been setbacks. Italy did, after all, finish on the losing side of the Euro 2012 final. And one club side have succeeded in beating Pirlo's Juve; the same team they were facing this weekend.
If Napoli's 2-0 win in last season's Coppa Italia final represented the lone black mark on Pirlo's Juventus resume then that was not the only reason for this to be considered a significant fixture. The Partenopei also arrived at this weekend as the only other unbeaten team left in Serie A this season, sat level with Juve in first place – with 19 points from seven games.
The tension was heightened by bad blood between the two clubs. Following an extra-time defeat to Juventus in the pre-season SuperCup, Napoli's players had refused to take part in the medal ceremony – an act of protest against perceived refereeing injustices. They were duly rewarded with a bonus by their team's owner, Aurelio De Laurentiis, who threatened to boycott future editions of the fixture.
Conspiracy was to the fore as this Saturday's game approached. The Italian Football Federation was forced to defend itself from accusations of favouritism after it emerged that the Juventus manager Antonio Conte had handed over details of his players' personalised training regimens to the national team. In truth this was simply the sort of co-operation that the Italy manager Cesare Prandelli has been seeking to foster with all club sides.
When Gigi Buffon was ruled out of Tuesday's game against Denmark, claims were made that this was nothing but a ruse to keep him fresh for the weekend – a theory which was rather disproved when the goalkeeper failed to recover in time to play on Saturday. The Turin-based newspaper, Tuttosport, meanwhile, ran a front-page headline on Thursday warning the powers that be not to pick the "wrong" referee.
As if that were not a colourful enough backdrop for this game, rather more dramatic events – ones that had nothing to do with football – were to unfold on Thursday afternoon. The Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci was emerging from a Ferrari dealership with his wife and three-month old son when he was accosted by a mugger – who reportedly pointed a gun at the player's face while demanding that he hand over his watch.
According to published accounts, Bonucci's wife, carrying their son, dived immediately into their car, but the player himself froze. Then, as the mugger reached out his spare hand to grab the timepiece, Bonucci punched him – first in the arm and then the face, causing him to fall to the ground. The defender then proceeded to chase his would-be aggressor down the street. The mugger jumped on the bike of a waiting accomplice, though even here Bonucci briefly attempted to block their escape.
If this was an act of rare bravery – and perhaps also stupidity, given the risk involved – then the defender would go on to show a more conventional kind of toughness in the game itself. Bonucci's afternoon seemed to be at an end as early as the 17th minute, when he had to be carried out on a stretcher after appearing to injure his knee. And yet, moments later there he was, sprinting back on with his knee heavily bound.
"[It was] a bandage that belonged to the old days of football," Alessandro Vocalelli wrote in La Repubblica. "The sort that made us fall in love with the sport because certain players, with their heads wrapped in a turban or with three metres of bandages around their thigh, looked like real sporting heroes."
Bonucci would go on to turn in a solid performance, though in the event heroism was not required. Napoli, despite dominating possession, showed little ambition going forwards, their one chance of the first-half arriving from a free-kick which Edinson Cavani whipped against the intersection of post and crossbar in the 27th minute.
Cavani, whose own preparations for the game were disrupted when he missed a connection on his convoluted return journey from Bolivia (where he had been on international duty with Uruguay), otherwise found himself isolated on a team whose top priority seemed to be restricting their hosts. With 10 minutes left to play that looked destined to prove a successful endeavour, with the game still goalless and Juve creating little by way of clear-cut chances.
But that was before Pirlo intervened. His had been a relatively quiet game, boxed in by the combination of Marek Hamsik and a packed three-man central midfield, but there was nothing Napoli could do to restrict his delivery at set-pieces. From a corner on the left he picked out the substitute Martin Caceres, who headed home with aplomb. Moments later Paul Pogba would add a second with a fine volley from outside the box. Napoli had no answer.
Angelo Alessio, filling in for the suspended Conte on the bench for the first time after completing his own ban, could hardly claim credit for the decision to bring on Cáceres, prompted as it was by an injury to Kwadwo Asamoah. But the introduction of Pogba in place of Arturo Vidal was, with hindsight, inspired. The former Manchester United midfielder had also helped create the space for Cáceres's opener – his height and presence causing two defenders to go with him at the corner.
"I am not expecting any text message off [Sir Alex] Ferguson," said Pogba. "For me the Red Devils are in the past, I don't think about that any more. I am just looking forward to my future with Juventus. There were other teams who wanted me – Milan and some English clubs. I chose Juve because French players have always done very well here: I'm thinking about Zidane, Platini and Deschamps."
He has a little way to go yet to match those players, yet it is clear already that Pogba was another astute addition for Juventus – capable of contributing in different roles across the midfield. And this was certainly another victory for the collective – Cáceres and Pogba becoming the club's 12th and 13th goalscorers of the season respectively. A team for whom the lack of one stand-out forward was supposed to be a weakness have instead turned it into a strength.
But it helps, too, to have a player like Pirlo, capable always of summoning the killer ball that undoes a dogged opponent. Juventus are unbeaten in 47 games, but even they have tasted defeat more recently than he has.
• More of these to follow on Monday, but for now just a quick mention of Saturday's other game – in which Lazio beat Milan 3-2. It was almost a remarkable comeback for the Rossoneri, who were 3-0 down early in the second-half, before goals from Nigel De Jong and Stephan El Shaarawy sparked a frantic finish. The defeat once again ramps up the speculation surrounding Massimiliano Allegri's position as manager of the Rossoneri, though credit should be given, too, to Lazio's Vladimir Petkovic. The charity worker-turned manager has done an incredible job to turn around a club where the mood in pre-season was verging on mutinous. The Biancocelesti now sit just one point behind second-placed Napoli. Milan, by contrast, are 15 points off first and would be within two points of last-place were it not for the points deduction handed to Siena as a result of this summer's match-fixing investigations.
• A goal worth seeing from that game: Antonio Candreva with Lazio's second.
• Compounding Milan's misery that little bit further will be the knowledge that Antonio Cassano, whom they sent to Inter part-exchange for Giampaolo Pazzini over the summer, has since become the single most productive player for their city rivals. Cassano it was who opened the scoring for the Nerazzurri this weekend against Catania, heading home his fifth goal of the season. He is, indeed, the leading goalscorer on a team who also moved to within a point of Napoli.
• The most entertaining fixture of the weekend once again involved Roma, who seem to have learned at last from their early-season follies under Zdenek Zeman. This time, instead of blowing a lead they reversed the formula – allowing Genoa a two-goal head-start that had been wiped out by half-time and become a 4-2 victory for the Giallorossi by the finish. Beyond the three points this felt like a victory for Zeman himself too, with Daniele De Rossi excellent and Pablo Osvaldo scoring two goals following their unexpected exclusions from the win over Atalanta before the international break. "I don't want to talk about that any more," said Osvaldo. "I've heard all sorts in the last few days, but I don't worry about these things."
Results: Juventus 2-0 Napoli, Lazio 3-2 AC Milan, Cagliari 1-0 Bologna, Atalanta 2-1 Siena, Chievo 1-1 Fiorentina, Inter 2-0 Catania, Palermo 0-0 Torino, Parma 2-1 Sampdoria, Udinese 1-0 Pescara, Genoa 2-4 Roma.