Juventus v Sassuolo
Serie A Week 3 – Saturday, 10th September – 17:00 GMT – Juventus Stadium
After the first international break, the season now really kicks into gear with seven games in less than a month. After dispatching two sizeable hurdles like Fiorentina and Lazio, the guys square off against another good team: Sassuolo. The pause rendered the last game almost forgettable and there should be some noticeable improvement, especially from the physical standpoint, but it was really an impressive win in a tough road game.
The squad earned a clean sheet against a team that scored four goals just a week before and the defensive plan was flawless and took away their biggest weapon, the counter-attacks. Obviously the Bianconeri were not as incisive upfront as needed to spend a serene afternoon, but still did enough to come home with three points. The coach almost reversed the script compared to the seasonal debut against Fiorentina: Juventus were passive, almost lethargic in the first half and then picked up the intensity in the second 45th minutes. A strategy that was certainly linked to the management of energies, which are scarce at the beginning of the football year. However, two weeks are a very long period and, if everything has gone according to plan, the team should be close to being able to play a complete game.
As we know, Juventus tried to close the deals for Blaise Matuidi and Axel Witsel in the final days of the transfer market, but neither joined, even though the latter really went down to the wire. Until January, when Kwadwo Asamoah and Mario Lemina leave for AFCON, the midfield will stay as is. Numerically we would be fine if nobody got hurt, but unfortunately Sami Khedira, Asamoah and Lemina have spent considerable time in the infirmary last year and Claudio Marchisio and Stefano Sturaro are currently hurt. An addition would have spared Massimiliano Allegri some headaches down the line and of course would have improved the overall quality.
On the other hand, the push to return made by Juan Cuadrado was successful as Giuseppe Marotta and Chelsea managed to put together a very clever deal that basically makes sure that the future of the Colombian winger will be in Turin and that the English club will receive a fair, but not excessive, compensation. Besides his basic use in 3-5-2, Cuadrado will allow the coach to field a proper 4-4-2 if too many midfielders are absent and to unleash a 4-3-3 if there is a shortage of strikers. The ex-Fiorentina man was very effective in the Champions League last season and is a devastating weapon off the bench, so it is a purchase that makes a lot of sense, more so if you take into consideration that he unlocks some line-ups where Marko Pjaca could thrive playing in his favourite position as left winger.
The other big story coming for the end of the transfer market window was the exclusion from the UCL list of Stephan Lichsteiner. Ultimately Hernanes was chosen over him to have more depth in the midfield, which will be numbered in the first phase. Even if I understand the reasoning, it is disappointing to not be able to count on a soldier like Lichtsteiner, even if he may or may not have asked for a last-minute move to Inter and may not be on the team next season. Dani Alves’ defensive shortcomings were exposed in the Lazio game and I do worry about what will happen against more potent opponents.
As for the Sassuolo game, the absentees are the usual ones: Marchisio, Sturaro and Rolando Mandragora. Sturaro’s agent said that he should come back in a couple of weeks, so it will take a little longer than the projected return after this break.
Miralem Pjanic played with his national team so we know he is fully healthy after an ill-timed hip pointer in the last preseason friendly. He is expected to start in front of the defence, replacing Lemina. At least this was the initial plan, we will see if Allegri decides to tweak it after the management failed to land another box-to-box midfielder. After all, the French youngster has been good there, Marchisio has mastered the role and might not be as effective in his past position as he once was and Pjanic had a ton of reps on the left-hand side of the midfield at Roma.
Gonzalo Higuain was not called up by Argentina and therefore he is on track to make his first start with Juventus, pairing up with Paulo Dybala. Juan Cuadrado and Dani Alves will return late due to international duties in South America, so Lichsteiner will start on the right, likely with Alex Sandro on the other flank. Leonardo Bonucci has played with Azzurri and so he is available after taking care of some familiar issues. Considering that Champions League football is just around the corner, Andrea Barzagli will be spared after featuring in two full games with Italy: Medhi Benatia had an impeccable game with Lazio so there is not anything to worry about.
3-5-2: Buffon; Benatia, Bonucci, Chiellini; Lichsteiner, Khedira, Pjanic, Asamoah, Sandro; Higuain, Dybala.
Marchisio (knee), Sturaro (knee), Mandragora (foot)
Sassuolo had an impressive start to the season, convincingly breezing through the oft-dangerous Europa League playoffs and winning the first two games against Palermo and Pescara with relative ease, riding the red-hot Domenico Berardi. But things went South really quickly: first the Italian starlet sprained his knee in the final minutes of the last game, the injury is not particularly severe but he will miss the Juventus clash, then the sports judge found out that the team had screwed up the registration of Antonino Ragusa so it awarded the victory to Pescara. The Neroverdi will appeal, but if it turned out that they really forgot to notify the modification of the 25-man list, or did that after the deadline, it would be a really bad look for the franchise.
On the pitch, they looked really good, sustained by great physical condition because of the early start, they have been playing official games since late July, and they did not even have a full squad since two core elements like Simone Missiroli and Lorenzo Pellegrini were sidelined with injuries. Also, they were trotting out Diego Falcinelli and Marcello Trotta, who are not really ready to contribute for a team that has established itself in the upper echelon of Serie A. They were both loaned to Crotone, with another prolific youngster in the lower leagues, Pietro Iemmello, taking their spot in the roster.
They did not directly replace Nicola Sansone, the move will be to either have Alessandro Matri as a regular starter, with Gregoire Defrel on the left; continue to trust the growth of Matteo Politano, who has made strides in two years; or hope that long-time Serie B star Antonino Ragusa will have the same impact in the top league. Federico Ricci is more of a right winger: he is certainly talented and we will see how he will worked into the rotation. Therefore, they have a wide array of weapons that gives Eusebio Di Francesco a lot of flexibility.
Berardi is out and Defrel is a little banged up and will miss the game as well. Matri is set to spearhead the attack, with Politano and either Ragusa or Ricci on the flanks. The other doubt is in the midfield: Missiroli and Pellegrini are good to go and they are challenging Davide Biondini, who has started almost every game so far, but is pretty average. Pellegrini has a little more chances because he is more stout and that would help in a very demanding game.
Stefano Sensi is out with a hamstring injury and he is part of the fresh group of newcomers that the management, always keen on youth development, has decided to bring to Serie A, alongside Luca Mazzitelli, Juventus loanee Pol Lirola and centre-back Timo Letschert. Lirola will eventually take over at right back and replace Sime Vrsaljko, who left for Atletico Madrid, but so far Marcello Gazzola has hanged on his spot in the XI thanks to solid performances. They play in Europa League in five days, so there might be a little rotation: Paolo Cannavaro is a candidate to be given the day off.
At this point, their proactive style is well-known and in the past season they have managed to bolster the defensive phase, albeit without adding any top-rated player. Playing without their go-to-guy Berardi will be a challenge, especially because Sansone used to take the reins in these situations in the past two seasons, but he is no longer there. So there might a void in leadership on the pitch, someone will have to step up and this could lead to some unusual choices: Missiroli as left winger to have a playmaker upfront, for instance.
4-3-3: Consigli; Gazzola, Cannavaro, Acerbi, Peluso; Duncan, Magnanelli, Biondini; Politano, Matri, Ragusa.
Berardi (knee), Sensi (hamstring).