There are so many rounds to go and worthy opponents that it’s still early to get the hopes up about potentially winning the Europa League, but Angel Di Maria and his incredible resume might perhaps offset Juventus’ continental woes, and he didn’t cost a bazillion euros like Cristiano Ronaldo. The downside of having only one of these players already manifested itself in the first part of the season since he played just one full Champions League match, while he was limited, got hurt in the first half, or absent in the other ones.

The return leg versus Nantes fell right into the Old Lady’s laps with early favorable events, and for once, the squad didn’t mess around and pulled away in the score. It obviously would have been much better if it happened in other circumstances, and not when the club is forced to, but putting a serious effort in trying to take home into the second-tier competition is a breath of fresh air for a Serie A giant. It probably would have happened even without the point deduction since Napoli aren’t letting up, and finishing in the top four probably wouldn’t have been particularly grueling.

The Bianconeri picked up a travesty of a win over Spezia in the past round, as they got pushed around for most of it and created very little but still somehow scored twice and didn’t concede. The standings no longer look insane, as they caught up with pretty much all the minnows. They have reached literal no man’s land; it won’t be known if the seventh place is worth a European berth until the Coppa Italia final. Playing in the European Conference League isn’t an alluring objective anyway. It’ll be tougher to get close to Atalanta and Lazio, which are currently ten and nine points above, but you never know.

It won’t happen soon, but there’s growing optimism that Juventus will get the first sanction reduced. On the other hand, the second one, for the mess on the wages, further plusvalenze, and allegedly creating a network of friendly clubs to do business with, could be equally or even heftier. The prosecutors must have felt they were losing widespread consensus since they sent out smoke signals on the day the Bianconeri had a large chunk of their season at stake. That was by design, and it’s a disgusting strategy even if crimes or misconduct indeed happened. The steady stream of leaks to keep the suspect under the yoke leading up to the sentence, which is a harsh enough punishment on their own, is typical in Italy.

Back to mundane topics, it’s DEFCON-1 in the midfield since Manuel Locatelli is suspended. Leandro Paredes has been an unmitigated disaster, and the coach should go out of his way to avoid deploying him. It’s highly unlikely to occur, though. The only viable one would be moving up Danilo. Daniele Rugani played well last week, and Leonardo Bonucci is technically available, even if he doesn’t have many minutes in his leg. Instead, a two-man line is improbable, as it would do Nicolò Fagioli a disservice, and the trident isn’t really on the table with Federico Chiesa in poor physical condition, even though he’s available for this one. Paul Pogba is fit too, although he has very little autonomy, and the expectations about him should be tempered for a month or so. Di Maria has some experience as a box-to-box in different contexts, but it’d be too onerous and detrimental to the offense to ask him to do that.

Probable Lineup

3-5-1-1 Szczesny; Danilo, Bremer, Alex Sandro; Cuadrado, Fagioli, Paredes, Rabiot, Kostic; Di Maria; Vlahovic. 

Absences: Locatelli (suspension), Miretti (ankle sprain), Milik (thigh strain), Kaio Jorge (patellar tendon tear). 

Torino have been desperately trying to become the clear best of the rest in Serie A this season, but they haven’t been able to separate themselves from the pack. They’ll have to battle it out for the honorary title with pretty good sides like Bologna, Udinese, and Monza, some of which are in better form. It generally feels like they are thoroughly convincing only when everybody is available and in good form. Instead, they are in trouble when one or two of their linchpins are either suspended or hurt or if they lack vigor on that day since they play the demanding Atalanta-like style that’s predicated on delicate mechanisms, one-on-ones all over the pitch, and high pace. There’s a lot more variance that even the biggest fans of this high-impact strategy would like to admit, which leads to great performances, like versus Fiorentina and Torino, even though they were narrow victories, or duds, as in the Cremonese match.

The fact that they sold their best all-around player, Sasa Lukic, in January didn’t help their case. They kind of had to, either in the winter or June, as he had no intention of extending his contract, and they wanted to avoid what happened with Andrea Belotti. On the other hand, they took a hit in the short term. They did spend to replace him and signed a mouth-watering prospect like Ivan Ilic, but he’s currently not as good as their former captain, and he has had a challenging season from the physical standpoint. He rarely looked totally right before and after the World Cup due to a muscular injury. We’ll see whether he’ll be fit enough to start in this one. They double-dipped, but fellow newcomer Ronaldo Vieira got hurt as well. If the Serb weren’t in the XI, they’d have to turn to youngster Michele Adopo, who had had his moments but is primarily a muscular and gritty player, or Gvidas Gineitis, whose leg didn’t shake when he got his first start in San Siro. Samuele Ricci is back from an injury, and that’ll be a big help, but he’s not quite ready to start.

It’s nothing new for an outfit of this caliber, but Ivan Juric probably hoped he’d be able to have the same squad for two or three seasons in a row when he took the job. Instead, they have to start over each summer because they rely a lot on loans with options to buy, and then they don’t always have the funds to activate the clauses, even if the players deserve it. The coach is under contract only until 2024, and the extension talks haven’t gone well. There may not be many openings among bigger Serie A sides in the near future, but he’d be the right guy for somebody that has been underwhelming in recent years and is eager to start a new cycle where he and a young roster would grow together.

On the pitch, they have been held back from becoming serious contenders for a European berth by a few issues. Antonio Sanabria will never be the most prolific striker, but it’s hard to keep him out of the lineup since he contributes a lot in other areas. They don’t really have an alternative, as Pietro Pellegri is always hurt, and Demba Seck is more of a gimmick when they want to try something different and threaten the opposing defense with quick fast breaks and through-balls.

Without a true goal poacher, they need the production to come from elsewhere, but that hasn’t happened. Nikola Vlasic showed promise to potentially be a double-digit scorer, but he hasn’t hit the net in a long time. Aleksey Miranchuk has had a very solid campaign, bouncing back from his Atalanta days, is great in linking the two lines, and occasionally rifles home gorgeous shots, but he too doesn’t find the target often. Nemanja Radonjic sometimes seems uncatchable, but he’s mercurial and has almost completely faded. The fizzy Yann Karamoh is getting more minutes than him lately, and with good reasons, since his speed and dribbling skills occasionally give defenders fits. Vlasic is out of this and, even though he wasn’t in super-duper form, it’s a massive love since he handles the ball a lot. They’ll likely be quicker and more vertical without him, but they might struggle playmaking-wise. The gaffer floated the idea of advancing Ilic, who’s more similar to the Croat compared to the alternatives.

The scheme gravitates a lot toward the flanks, but Wilfried Singo has had a confusing campaign where he didn’t take a step forward as expected, and his upside is evident if only for his physical attributes. He only recently found the target for the first time. Mergim Vojvoda is a fine assist-man, but he’s not a finisher, and he sometimes ends up in the coach’s doghouse and routinely misses time with muscular problems. Ola Aina, who’s suspended for this one, has about the same issues. As a whole, the performances of the wingbacks are wildly seesawing. There’s a non-zero chance Ricardo Rodriguez moves up from the flank to play wide. While he’s not as dynamic as his teammates, he still has a pretty good left foot.

The defense has remained at an elite level despite the departure of Gleison Bremer, as Perr Schuurs couldn’t have fared any better in his maiden season in Italy, and Vanja Milinkovic-Savic is making the leap, despite the occasional blunder, plus all the other center-backs are solid. But that’s the only area of the pitch where they are truly above average.

Ultimately, they can give fits to most opponents when they are properly motivated and energized, but they can also lose to anybody when that’s not the case. They’ll surely get up for the Derby, so the Old Lady will have to be ready to respond accordingly.

Probable Lineup

3-4-2-1 Milinkovic-Savic; Djidji, Schuurs, Buongiorno; Singo, Adopo, Ilic, Vojvoda; Miranchuk, Karamoh; Sanabria.  

Absences: Aina (suspension), Vlasic (thigh pull), Lazaro (knee sprain), Vieira (thigh strain), Zima (meniscus tear), Pellegri (thigh injury).