Torino v Juventus
Serie A Week 16 – Sunday, 11th December – 14:00 GMT – Stadio Olimpico
Juventus needed to bounce back after that ugly loss against Genoa and they delivered in a big way against the red-hot Atalanta. It was a statement game by the Bianconeri, who easily got rid of an opponent who had created fits to the other contenders. It was probably our most dominating performance of the season, considering the level of the competition, once again proving that, even if it might stumble here and there, especially this season where the focus has shifted to Champions League, this is the team to beat in Serie A.
In the Wednesday game against Dinamo Zagreb, the squad spared some energies and still easily got the job done. Of course, in a year where we finish on top of our group, the two pots are not that different strength-wise, but hopefully we will be a little lucky on Monday. Also, I am realizing now what an awful way the draw is to determine a team’s fate in a competition – UEFA should come up with an algorithm to rank who advanced from 1 to 16 and proceed accordingly, so nobody can blame an early exit on misfortune and the sides can construct their path with the performances in the group stage.
Three tough games await Juventus before Christmas: Derby della Mole, the Roma match and the Supercup against Milan in Doha, with a cupcake against Crotone in there as well. A sweep would send a clear message of superiority to the rest of the League, but also finishing the calendar year with a four-point lead over the suitors or more would not be that bad.
We also have some good news from the infirmary for a change. Paulo Dybala returned on Wednesday and he looked spry. Since he only played fifteen minutes, he is unlikely to start, but will act as super sub until he is 100% and that is an incredible weapon. Andrea Barzagli is close to recovering from his dislocated shoulder and could make an appearance before 2017, however the defence, masterfully put together in the summer, has not skipped a beat without Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci.
The reports about Sunday’s tactics are mixed and Massimiliano Allegri tends to rely on good ol’ 3-5-2 in big matches, but considering the fact that he switched to 4-3-1-2 after half an hour against Dinamo with Juan Cuadrado as right back (!), I would say that the diamond formation, which worked well against Atalanta, is the leading candidate as of right now. Without defensive duties, Miralem Pjanic is much more involved offensively and that also helps the centre-forwards, who do not have to track back to get the ball. Furthermore, the midfield is more muscular with one more body and right now it is at full strength. Since the defensive line has held its own, I would say that there are no real contraindications for 4-3-1-2 right now, besides some questionable depth at RB, but Stephan Lichststeiner is usually durable.
This formation unlocks the nuclear option of having Dybala behind Gonzalo Higuain and Mario Mandzukic, which could work thanks to the work rate of all three strikers, the Croatian in particular. I suspect we will see it fairly soon if we need to score.
If the coach chooses 4-3-1-2, then there would only be two real doubts about the XI. Daniele Rugani has played very well recently and I think his skills are complementary to both Giorgio Chiellini and Medhi Benatia, while the characteristics of these two are a little overlapping. Rugani plus whoever forms a complete set of centre-backs, while Chiellini plus Benatia is a very aggressive and physical combo, but lacks a little of patience and finesse. Furthermore, the Moroccan defender has not looked as explosive as at the beginning of the season after his latest injury, so I will go with the two Italians.
Sami Khedira will return to the lineup after a routine day off, while Stefano Sturaro is the fourth midfielder in the pecking order, so he is the favourite to start. Mario Lemina played well on Wednesday, performing like somebody who has something to prove, and he does, so he has a puncher’s chance to feature from the get-go. Kwadwo Asamoah had a decent showing midweek and he is the only true left-footed. A fancy solution would include Alex Sandro in the midfield and Patrice Evra at left-back, but I would avoid experiments since there are plenty of more natural fits. With a 3-5-2, all three centre-backs would play, with Sturaro on the bench and likely Cuadrado on the right wing.
UPDATE: Pjanic is dealing with back spasm, so he might be benched for Cuadrado.
4-3-1-2: Buffon; Lichsteiner, Rugani, Chiellini, Sandro; Khedira, Marchisio, Sturaro; Pjanic; Mandzukic, Higuain.
Bonucci (hamstring), Barzagli (shoulder), Alves (fibula), Pjaca (fibula), Mandragora (foot).
Even though the ever demanding Sinisa Mihajlovic would think otherwise, Torino are having a great year and they have taken advantage of Fiorentina and Inter’s struggles to insert themselves into the Europa League conversation- They have a very explosive attack, the third best in the League scoring-wise, and they do not have clear holes in the starting lineup. Their only big flaw is that they do not perform as well on the road, where they do not seem to be able to beat above average opponents. However, they play at home this time, so we can toss this issue aside.
Besides the fierceness of Andrea Belotti, who has clearly flourished into a complete striker over the last calendar year, the flanks are the biggest threats. The rookie Antonio Barreca on the left and either Davide Zappacosta or Lorenzo De Silvestri on the right are relentless in their production of crosses, while Adem Ljajic and Iago Falque are excellent in cutting to the center and shooting, even from long range. Falque is an extremely intelligent player, who always knows where to position himself to be the most dangerous. Ljajic is more ball dominant, but his play-making compliments the trident well where the other two do not need many touches.
Of course the midfielders often thrive thanks to the focus of the defence on the forwards: Marco Benassi and Daniele Baselli are both having a good season, the former in particular – Baselli has stepped up after his coach called him out for lack of intensity. Their cuts in the box and their work on the counter-attacks is something to keep an eye on. Mirko Valdifiori has solved a multi-year quest to find a good enough deep-lying midfielder.
I would say that the center-backs duos, usually Luca Rossettini and Leandro Castan, is probably the least exciting part of their lineup. The goalkeeper Joe Hart is obviously a big name, but I would say that he has been pretty average so far: certainly better than Daniele Padelli, but not world class. Their defence is not rock solid and, in general, they tend to play on emotions.
Especially at home, they play aggressively and they haunt whoever has the ball, starting with Belotti and Falque whose work rate is immense. Their midfield is not that physical, sometimes Mihajlovic likes to put Afriyie Acquah or Joel Obi even though they are clearly inferior players to improve on that. The Serbian coach must really fear Juventus’ muscle, because there are reports indicating that Lucas Boye, a winger with a centre-forward frame, could start over Falque. They will be without Cesare Bovo, Obi and maybe Giuseppe Vives, but none of them is a starter.
4-3-3: Hart; Zappacosta, Rossettini, Castan, Barreca; Benassi, Valdifiori, Baselli; Falque, Belotti, Ljajic.
Obi (hamstring), Molinaro (knee).