There is hope after all for the 2020/21 Juventus as they rose to occasion in the seminal clash with Milan, handing opponents the first loss in Serie A play and more importantly avoiding being buried in the standings. As it has often happened, the match had different phases: an early convincing one for the Old Lady, which culminated in the great goal by Federico Chiesa, a lull where the Rossoneri pulled the strings and eventually tied, then the second half was neck-and-neck until the Italian winger pulled another out of the hat, bending their spirit before Dejan Kulusevki and Weston McKennie finished them off. With few absences on both sides, the difference in terms of depth of roster turned out to be appalling.
It was surely a deserved recognition for Chiesa, who had been playing well for a stretch now but had not fully broken out yet. He was greeted with some skepticism, mostly because of the hefty price tag and the fact that, despite the numbers, he did not have a great season with Fiorentina in 2019/2020, but he fit right in at Juventus and he has gone back to his best version, the properly motivated one. It was nice to see Paulo Dybala bust out one of his signature plays as he is always under scrutinity and also that Kulusevski finally managed to contribute: he has clearly hit the rookie wall as his playing time started to dip, but, as a minimum, he should be an unfair weapon to unleash off the bench on tired opponents. He had not succeeded in the previous tilts, but he came through at the right time.
We have seen Juventus step it up in big matches before, but following them up with equally satisfactory outings has often been a challenge: passing the acid test with Milan was big, especially for the downside a loss or even a tie would have had, but achieving that is only less than one third of the job left to do to comeback in the table.
The COVID outbreak is fortunately progressing slowly but continues to claim significant victims as Matthijs De Ligt also contracted it. The only positive aspect is that the hiccup comes at a rare time when both Merih Demiral and Giorgio Chiellini are available and the schedule is no longer crazy, but there is no denying that the Dutch starlet is consistently the best, most reliable performer in the back and often the guy that keep things from unfolding with his supreme physicality. The two returning center-backs are surely no slouches, but there is not telling where they are at in terms of conditioning after a long time on the shelf, and they both have massive physique, but there is no alternative to speeding up the process and get them in peak shape.
Alvaro Morata might be available but will not start, so it should be Dybala up front again. It is a little counter-intuitive that, when La Joya leads the front-line, Cristiano Ronaldo tends to isolate himself more to the left wing compared to when the Spanish striker is present: it should be the opposite given the lack of a true linchpin. Maybe it was a one-off, maybe it is the fact that Chiesa on the right flank is a major presence and the three attackers simply like to divvy up the field in three portions and cook, but it would be better if the Portuguese ace resumed operating more centrally.
UPDATE: After much speculation, Andrea Pirlo went with the easier option to replace Juan Cuadrado and Alex Sandro, Gianluca Frabotta, who held his own in his natural role, and that should be the case again in this one, although there are whispers suggesting Kulusevski might take care of the flank, which would surely be something since the match-up is not that easy. Rodrigo Bentancur looked sloppy and spent in San Siro and, since Weston McKennie is poised to be back in the XI, he could be replaced by either Aaron Ramsey, but playing three times in a week could be a stretch for him, or more likely Arthur. Gianluigi Buffon is making a late push.
3-4-1-2 Szczesny; Demiral, Bonucci, Danilo; Chiesa, Arhur, Rabiot, Frabotta; McKennie; Dybala, Ronaldo.
Sandro, De Ligt, Cuadrado (COVID)
Sassuolo have surely tailed off in December after a scintillating start as they run out of gas and some injuries were too much to overcome, but they have gotten a couple of decent wins lately that have allowed them to remain the top six. They were one of the most prolific sides in the early portion of the season, then their leading scorer Francesco Caputo got hurt and has had troubles re-finding the best form and, since he is not only a fox in the box but also a marvelous creator, they have had troubles maintain the same level of production without him. Also, Filip Djuricic has been forced to miss some time with COVID and has not been the same player after that. Therefore, while they were humming in the first few rounds with everybody healthy, the gulf in quality with the back-ups showed once they run into some troubles, but that is only natural.
Domenico Berardi kept them afloat by maintaining a remarkable throughout every phase of the campaign and maybe he has finally done that extra step to really become top team material. However, as it has often been the case in the matches with Juventus, he will be absent due to a recent injury. They have few options to replacing either: the likeliest one is moving Jeremie Boga to the right flank, Filip Djuricic to the other one and deploying Hamed Traore, who is in a strong run of form, as no.10, otherwise they can turn to Gregoire Defrel.
The fact that Boga woke up in the last game after a lengthy hibernation is not great news as he can be very streaky and he has dribbling skills and an ability to bag scorchers out of the blue that are unmatched in Italy. He got the lengthy form of Coronavirus during the off-season, which affected his preparation and he had not been great so far besides maybe one outing, but he delivered midweek and that could spell troubles.
While the attack was sputtering, they have been able to tighten it up in the back, a significant shift in Roberto De Zerbi’s run-and-gun philosophy as he too adapted to circumstances and lowered the pace a little to help out his back-line since he no longer had the horses to try outscoring opponents in every match. A clear display of maturity for a coach that is surely destined to go places thanks to his ultra-modern brand of football.
If you take out a couple a of drubbings they suffered in big matches, like the Inter and Atalanta ones, their defensive numbers are borderline elite and that is quite stunning given how they play and the fact that their defense is fine, but nothing to be too excited about in terms of talent and they are surely a front-loaded outfit. They lost to Milan too, making it a match late after a dismal start, so this kind of clash has been a problem thus far and they will have to prove they can hang with the big boys in this one.
While a little less extreme than last season, they are a very proactive side that likes to have the ball as they are actually tied with Juventus atop of the League’s chart in terms of possession. Manuel Locatelli has become quite incredible in pulling the strings and dishing quality passes. However, they do not mind attacking quickly too as they have a lot of pace up front and all their attackers prosper in open spaces.
The usual doubts in their lineup are the two fullbacks, as they alternate all four, Mert Muldur and Rogerio are more offensive-minded than Jeremy Toljan and Georgios Kyriakopoulos, and Locatelli’s partner in the midfield: the gaffer goes with the intriguing Maxime Lopez when he is feeling frisky, otherwise he fields the more workmanlike Pedro Obiang or Francesco Magnanelli when he wants to have muscles there.
4-3-3 Consigli; Toljan, Chiriches, Ferrari, Rogerio; Locatelli, Obiang; Boga, Traore, Djuricic; Caputo.
Berardi (thigh), Bourabia, Haraslin.