Bayer Leverkusen v Juventus
Champions League – Wednesday, 11th December – 20:00 GMT – BayArena
The result at the weekend felt like it was a long time coming as the boys have been complacent against the smaller sides and it was eventually going to catch up with them; Unfortunately it coincided with the an important match that, had Juve won, would have returned them to the top of the table. As it stands, Lazio close to within three points of the Bianconeri while Inter have extended their lead by two points, making for a highly entertaining title race this season for any neutrals.
The performance itself wasn’t all that bad, especially for the first 45 minutes. The players looked keen to react after the horror-show against Sassuolo the weekend before where they sleepwalked to a 2-2 draw and showed little creativity or invention in a lifeless display. The Lazio game looked like a positive reaction with Cristiano Ronaldo looking fired up and keen to make an impact while Rodrigo Bentancur was fundamental in the midfield, dictating play and notching up his second assist in as many games. His injury seemed to turn the game as Juve lost control in the centre of the pitch while Lazio seemed to go through the gears with Milinkovic-Save and Luis Alberto scything through the Bianconeri back line to put the result beyond doubt.
There were inevitable concerns voiced over Juve’s lack of cohesion, inability to play on the front foot or even to play the kind of passes they did against Inter, Napoli and others earlier this season. Part of that might lie with the change of formation as Sarri seems set on using 4-3-1-2 for now, despite Federico Bernardeschi’s inability to play particularly well behind the two forwards while Aaron Ramsey seems to be struggling for fitness once again, despite making a promising start there.
Sarri has suggested that it would be hard to play 4-3-3 without Douglas Costa in the line-up and his injury woes have continued this season, missing more games than he’s actually played, making it hard to rely on him even from the bench. It’s a shame as he was showing some encouraging signs and seemed to be singled out by Sarri as a player that he felt he could improve, but with almost half the season gone, he’s managed only six starts in the league.
The Bianconeri really need to focus on finding a way of way to make things work in midfield in order to help shield the defence all the better as well as contributing to the attacking phase. There are times when the forwards are starved of service and feed on scraps, leading to a lack of goals, despite the recent 3-1 win against Atalanta. The impression is that the players are still adapting to what Sarri is asking of them while the coach is having to rethink his plans due to a lack of natural width in the squad.
The Leverkusen game carries little bearing on things now as Juve have qualified for the last 16, although it would be nice to emerge unbeaten from the group. It won’t be an easy game as Bayer have managed five wins and a draw on the bounce, beating Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid along the way. There’s been a suggestion that Sarri will rotate and it makes sense to throw in the likes of Merih Demiral, Daniele Rugani, Mattia De Sciglio, Adrien Rabiot and Danilo , especially as some of them have yet to feature in Europe.
Speaking in yesterday’s presser, the Mister dropped a few hints on the expected XI:
“Bernardeschi in midfield? It could happen, although I don’t know how many options I’d have in the trequartista role then, with Ramsey and Douglas Costa out.
“Adrien Rabiot showed in pre-season he could do well on the right side of midfield, so we’ll see. The only unknown is whether Adrien can play 90 minutes after such a long time out.
“We know that we have to work to do better, but are calm because we are working. We need a spark nowadays, but that can be many things. We’ve got to move the ball quickly, otherwise possession becomes sterile, and not defend deep after we’ve taken the lead.
“It’s important that we always try to control the game. These are all things that represent a change of mentality at Juventus, so they do not come automatically. We’ve seen them in moments, for example the first half in Rome.
“The first time I was contacted by the Juventus hierarchy, I asked how come they only managed three points in the final Serie A games of the season. I said it would be a bad sign of their mentality if they justified it with the fact the Scudetto had already been won.
“We have the privilege and the honour of playing in the Champions League. I expect a strong and focused performance, because there are always objectives. I ask for a performance, then the result can come or not.
“I am unbeaten in 21 European games. I think I read somewhere that the longest run for a coach in Europe is 22, so if my lads don’t get a result tomorrow, I’ll kill them!
“Clearly, the match I remember with most fondness is the Europa League Final with Chelsea, but I hope the run can last so long that I end up in another Final.
“Ronaldo, Higuain and Dybala? It’s an experiment, because we have used it during games, but also learned from that we cannot afford to keep it going for long periods.”
Gigi Buffon will likely get the nod in goal with Danilo, Rugani, Demiral and De Sciglio playing in the back four. There’s been a suggestion that Juan Cuadrado could play on the right of the midfield, possibly closer to wings in a 4-4-2 with Miralem Pjanic and Blaise Matuidi or possibly Adrien Rabiot. Federico Bernardeschi may play on the left of the four, or more likely, behind the strikers in a 4-3-1-2 with Higuain and Ronaldo expected to make up the attack.
4-3-1-2: Buffon; Danilo, Rugani, Demiral, De Sciglio; Cuadrado, Pjanic, Rabiot; Bernardeschi; Higuain, Ronaldo
Chiellini (knee), Perin (shoulder), Pjaca (knee), Khedira (knee), Bentancur (thigh), Ramsey (thigh)
4-2-3-1: Hrádecky; Wendell, Bender, Tah, Bender;Baumgartlinger, Aránguiz; Bailey, Havertz, Bellarabi; Volland