Juventus v Empoli
Serie A Week 26 – Saturday, 25th February – 19:45 GMT – Juventus Stadium
It took some patience, but Juventus successfully managed to take full advantage of Alex Telles’ mistakes and steer the round of 16 tilt clearly in their favour. It was not easy to break Porto’s line of defence after that they have decided to crowd the spaces and commit eight players to stopping us, but a lucky bounce and an excellent finish by Marko Pjaca did the trick. Then Dani Alves sealed the deal, putting us in a very comfortable position ahead of the return leg.
Obviously the game was altered by the early red card, but also before that we saw the usual commanding Juventus show up in Champions League as well: it took control of the ball and of the pace and was starting to create some chances, especially thanks to Paulo Dybala’s movement between the lines. The expulsion changed everything and it became more difficult for the attackers to break through, but we kept attacking without being careless and exposing ourselves to dangerous counter-attacks. In the end, the win was much deserved.
It was also a nice revenge for the oft maligned Massimiliano Allegri, who nailed the two substitutions and handled well a week rocked by the Leonardo Bonucci case. By now, you all know what went down and some may debate that benching him would have been enough instead of forcing him into an evening of gloomy close-up in the stands. However, it has been clear in the past that everybody has to stay in his role at Juventus and that is why the operation is so well run. I am very sceptical about the radical report by Gazzetta saying that coach threatened to resign if the centre-back went unpunished.
While there was a five-day turnaround between the last two games, it will be much quicker this time: Empoli on Satuday and a very demanding Coppa Italia bout against Napoli on Wednesday. At least they are both home games. It certainly did not help that the squad was held up in Oporto because of a flight delay. Anyway, we will see some heavy rotation between the two matches, but the coaching staff has proved that that is not an issue and the quality on the pitch has not suffered.
Allegri gave few indications about the starting line-up in the pre-game presser: Norberto Neto will play, Sami Khedira will rest and there will be a four-defender scheme, not that there were many doubts at this point. Miralem Pjanic is slated to start, with either Claudio Marchisio or Tomas Rincon. Leonardo Bonucci is slated to start, likely alongside Daniele Rugani or Medhi Benatia. I would not be surprised to see either Paulo Dybala or even Gonzalo Higuain resting, with Pjaca as the first candidate to replace them. It would be 4-2-3-1 with the Croatian wide left and Mario Mandzukic as center-forward with El Pipita on the bench, or a simple 4-4-2 with La Joya sidelined. Allegri hinted that he likes to have a change-of-pace contributor on the bench: that suggests that he is unlikely to field Juan Cuadrado, Dybala and Pjaca together from the get-go. The Croatian youngsters has played OK on the right as well, positioning himself has a valuable 12th guy.
UPDATE: It looks like Dybala will be the one resting, with Stefano Sturaro replacing him.
4-2-3-1: Neto; Alves, Rugani, Bonucci, Asamoah; Marchisio, Pjanic; Cuadrado, Dybala, Mandzukic; Higuain.
Empoli are having a subpar season, but since the pace of the last three teams of the table is so slow, they are in good enough position to avoid the drop. 22 points after 25 matches is nothing to be proud of, but it is still eight points better than who is behind them. Their biggest strength so far has been beating the teams that are below them: that really lifted their standing.
The promotion of Giovanni Martusciello, who was the lead assistant to Maurizio Sarri and Marco Giampaolo, while it provided continuity, was rather uninspiring. However, their biggest problem was the inability to replace some cornerstones who left in the summer and that is common if you build your team through loans in a year-to-year proposition. Lorenzo Tonelli, Piotr Zielinski and Leandro Paredes helped them immensely last season.
While they have been able to make do with Giuseppe Bellusci and others in the defence, coming up with a decent midfield has been a puzzle. They have settled on Rade Krunic as box-to-box and while on paper he is a similar player to the Polish international, there is a gulf in quality. As far as the deep-lying playmaker position goes, they tried to revive José Mauri’s weird career, but then switched to giving playing time to one of their own, Assane Dioussè, who is OK for his age but his contribution is very different from what the Roma player brought to the table.
It also did not help that Riccardo Saponara, who was supposed to carry them, has had a very disappointing season. They have realized that he had run out of motivations in Empoli and sold him in January: they will go with Omar El Kaddouri as attacking midfielder. A talented guy who showed his best stuff at Brescia and Torino and has undeniable class, but also a moody and inconsistent guy. We will see how it goes, anyway the price tag was so low that it was worth the gamble.
They have four injury concerns for Saturday: Vincent Laurini, Daniele Croce, El Kaddouri and Leven Mchedlidze are dealing with mild injuries. They could all be available, but might not start. Laurini cramped up in the final portion of the last game and he has an history of hamstring ailments: should he not be ready, Frederic Veseli would take his spot at right back. Croce would be replaced by either Marcel Buchel or Mauri.
Mchedlidze has been an unlikely hero for them in the past two months: he has scored five goals since December 17 and the three against Cagliari and Udinese gifted them with six points. He is an incredibly physical player who has finally found the way to use his body in the box, to shield defenders off and find enough room for a clean strike. He is dealing with a sore back which forced him to miss the last game: he might not make the trip. He will be at most be on the bench, so Massimo Maccarone will be in the XI.
It would be more difficult to replace El Kaddouri, but all the signs point toward him being fit. They have just brought in two youngsters, Miha Zajc and Alberto Picchi, who could play as no.10, and also Croce and Buchel can occupy that role in a more tactical, defensively-oriented way. The potential absence of the Moroccan attacker could also open the door for a trident using some combination of Manuel Pucciarelli, Mame Thiam and Guido Marilungo as Maccarone flankers.
They attack down the flanks with both fullbacks: Manuel Pasqual in particular is a great crosser. Compared to last year, they are no longer a technical squad, but more of a gritty and muscular one. Goalkeeping is one of their forte: Lukas Skorupski has been very impressive. Much like the Palermo game, the main challenge for Juventus will be to focus on the task on hand, rather than being distracted by future and more compelling matches.
4-3-1-2: Skorupski; Laurini, Bellusci, Costa, Pasqual; Krunic, Diousse, Croce; El Kaddouri; Maccarone, Pucciarelli.