Juventus v Atalanta
Serie A Week 15 – Saturday, 3rd December – 19:45 GMT – Juventus Stadium
The performance against Genoa was simply horrible, the worst one in over a decade. The squad was flat and not focused, completely overwhelmed by the opponent’s intensity. As a result, they conceded three goals in half an hour and its advantage over the suitors was reduced to just four points.
However, here is why I am not too worked up about it. First of all, I think that as long as you are in first position, things are good and there is no need to panic. Of course, it would be great to have a ten-point lead and win the League in March, but that is not always possible. In the past two seasons, I have been a proponent of punting a game here and there in Serie A to play better in Champions League, especially in the early stages, to avoid any trouble. Unfortunately, the last few years prove that you can not have it both ways and that the team has always privileged the domestic league.
This season, that has changed: even though the outings in Europe have not always been perfect, certainly they have been the main focus. It is not a surprise that the three losses in Serie A have come after Champions League midweek matches, unfortunately against historic opponents like Milan and Inter. At the end of the day, Juventus have a golden opportunity to finish first in its group, hopefully it will prove to be helpful in the draw, and they are still on top of the table in Serie A.
It is still painful to see matches like the Genoa one, but I accept them if there is a reasonable explanation and if the European campaign is successful. It is hard to be in tip-top shape, physically and mentally, twice in three days, especially against well-rested and well-prepared opponents and in a moment when you can not rotate the squad much because of injuries. All those factors piled up and resulted in an ugly game last week.
The worst news once again come from the infirmary: Leonardo Bonucci could miss up to two months with a severe hamstring strain, while Dani Alves has a fractured fibula, whose recovery time has not been disclosed but that usually takes at least a couple of months to heal, then it depends on what kind of fracture it is and if there is any setback later on. Fortunately, the roster is pretty deep in those two positions, even though it is clear that their quality and leadership will be missed.
Paulo Dybala as not been called up and that qualifies as a surpise as the coach heavily hinted that he would be. He should be close to returning thouhg. His absence, and Marko Pjaca’s one, has forced the coach to constantly use the Gonzalo Higuain-Mario Mandzukic couple up front, which has basically worked pretty well for Mandzukic and not that well for El Pipita, who is playing as second striker/left winger, which has hurt his scoring averages. He is still contributing a ton though.
As for Saturday, there are still few doubts about the tactic. There are only three and a half centre-backs available, two of which, Medhi Benatia and Giorgio Chiellini, are rather similar. I do not think we have ever seen a three-man defence without both Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli, but in the pre-game presser Massimiliano Allegri was confident that Benatia could take over the key role in the heart of the defensive line.
It looks like it will be either a 3-5-2 or a 4-3-1-2. In the first option, Juan Cuadrado and Patrice Evra would serve wing backs. However, Cuadrado is said to have a little problem: if he can not go and is replaced by Stephan Lichtsteiner, at that point Alex Sandro, who had a particularly awful game against Genoa, would enter the lineup as well to keep it a little more offensive.
The alternative is 4-3-1-2 with Miralem Pjanic in the hole and one more body, likely Stefano Sturaro but Kwadwo Asamoah is available as well, in the midfield. I would not mind this look, because it improves the link-up between the departaments and is a little more physical. However, on that front, we get Giorgio Chiellini and Claudio Marchisio back, who were healthy but spared recently, and that is certainly an improvement. The 4-3-3 with the weird Cuadrado-Mandzukic-Higuain trident is losing momentum.
3-5-2: Buffon; Rugani, Benatia, Chiellini; Cuadrado, Khedira, Marchisio, Pjanic, Evra; Mandzukic, Higuain.
Bonucci (hamstring), Barzagli (shoulder), Alves (fibula), Pjaca (fibula), Mandragora (foot).
Atalanta are simply the team of the moment and the early surprise of the season. They have won eight out of the last nine matches, and six in a row, including some tough ones against Napoli, Inter and Roma. They are playing outstandingly. They have the best record on the road, but they have not had a tough away schedule and the three signature victories have all come at home, so it will be very interesting to see whether they can impose their style at the Stadium.
Their recipe is pretty simple but hard to replicate. Gian Piero Gasperini basically uses a full-court pressing with man marking all over the pitch. It is taxing, but they have an impeccable physical condition so they can sustain it at least for an hour, until the opponents wear down and therefore they can control the ball in the final portion of the match. They are very physical and they have a good counter-attacking game usually led by Alejandro Gomez, one of the best playmakers in the open court in Serie A. Thanks to the constant help of the wingbacks, they play with width and since Andrea Petagna cracked into the lineup they have a bigger presence in the box in the many crosses they produce. They are also very dangerous in the set pieces, an area where Juventus have struggled mightily.
They will be without a pretty important player: Roberto Gagliardini is disqualified and Remo Freuler is next in line in the pecking order. Freuler is decent, pretty technical, but he is not as dynamic as the Italian youngster and, as we have seen, that is a very big part of their overall plan. Alberto Grassi is more similar to Gagliardini, but he has not featured much since his return on loan from Napoli.
The other injuries include Andrea Paloschi, who has fallen out of favour rather quickly, Etrit Berisha, Abdoulay Konko, Emanuele Suagher and Roberto Cabezas. None of them is particularly significant if not for the goalkeeper, as Marco Sportiello has been surprisingly unreliable this season, maybe because he expected to move to a bigger club in the summer or because his confidence has been shaken by the fact that they acquired somebody to compete with him for the starting job. Boukary Drame is questionable, but Leonardo Spinazzola has done a good job in his place. The only other doubt is whom Rafael Toloi, who returns from a suspension, will replace: either Ervin Zukanovic or Andrea Masiello, or maybe even Mattia Caldara who is reportedly dealing with a minor ailment.
They use a 3-4-1-2 that can easily change within the course of the game. Jasmin Kurtic plays in the key role of attacking midfielder: he is a master in making sneaky cuts but also in pressing the opponents’ deep-lying playmakers. Two highlights are certainly represented by two Italian youngsters, the right back Andrea Conti and the centre-back Caldara, who both started the season behind some players in the hierarchies but have won the coach over and are performing at a very high level. Of course, then, the rookie Franck Kessie has been a revelation.
3-4-1-2: Sportiello; Masiello, Toloi, Caldara; Conti, Freuler, Kessie, Spinazzola; Kurtic; Gomez, Petagna.
Berisha (knee), Paloschi (hamstring), Konko (hamstring), Cabezas, Suagher (knee).