Udinese v Juventus
Serie A Week 35 – Thursday, 23 July – 19:30 GMT – Stadio Friuli
Juventus can not play complete matches to save their lives, but the good in the Lazio clash was more than the bad, even though the final ten minutes almost cost them what they had managed to build. Those black-outs are atavistic, but it feels like they have got worst lately, perhaps because this weird schedule exacerbates the issues of every team. The lads also seem to be playing their best football when the result is nil-nil.
The match was a small microcosm of how the Maurizio Sarri’s tenure has gone: it started with high hopes of a turnaround in terms of playing style, it ended with the coach submitting to reality and resorting to extreme pragmatism. Props to him for growing and pulling all the stops for his first Scudetto, but the expectations were diverse.
The starting XI was in fact a nice thought experiment as it featured several technical players and no workhorses. It did okay, but Aaron Ramsey and Douglas Costa have not really been able to shine when given the opportunity to start and it is particularly stupefying to the Brazilian speedster since he has been so effective off the bench. The final matches could be useful to make some evaluation on both him and the Welshman ahead of the transfer market window. It would not hurt to give them some consistent minutes and that has been very beneficial for Adrien Rabiot, who is now a keeper.
What started off with encouraging premises ended up with the coach using a three-man line for the first time since he was appointed. It worked out, as the different composition plugged a pair of holes late, but it was the final capitulation of ‘sarrismo’. Should he stick around, we will see whether he can recapture his fast-ball and improve the play, helped by the confidence of having a title under his belt. The tilt was aptly solved by Sarri’s magnus opus, which was to make Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala gel and thrive together. The credit is not obviously completely his there, but he contributed.
Leonardo Bonucci is suspended so, unless they fast-track Merih Demiral, Daniele Rugani will get the start. Miralem Pjanic has rotated quite scientifically, so it should be his turn to be in the XI, while Federico Bernardeschi is poised to complete the trident. Gonzalo Higuain and Dybala are both dealing with small back problems but La Joya did not look hampered by that versus Lazio. I guess Cristiano will not rest due to his quest to be the leading scorer, especially now that he has caught Ciro Immobile.
4-3-3: Szczesny; Cuadrado, Rugani, De Ligt, Sandro; Bentancur, Pjanic, Rabiot; Bernardeschi, Dybala, Ronaldo.
Khedira (thigh), Chiellini (calf).
Udinese have not had a particularly noteworthy campaign and, while they have an okay margin over the last three positions, they are still looking to salvage enough points to avoid a very tense finish. Despite some injury issues, they are a veteran team and better than Genoa and Lecce, so they should manage to stay afloat without being dragged too much into the mud in the final two or three rounds.
With the ownership focused on the more profitable Watford, they are no longer the factory of prospects, mostly South Americans, they used to be, but the tradition lived on with Rodrigo De Paul, who was not particularly young nor at his first European experience, but in four years here fully flourished into one of the most impactful midfielders in the League. He fully turned into a box-to-box this year, similar to the role he plays for Argentina, and, while a bit counter-intuitive, that has made him even more influential in their scheme, considering they often have troubles bringing and keeping the ball up front. A few meters behind, he is always in the thick of it: he is pretty much a Luis Alberto junior.
They changed their coach in November, promoting the lead assistant Luca Gotti after firing Igor Tudor, reportedly also for some issues with some players in the locker room, but their overall makeup changed only slightly. The pace, results-wise, has not improved all that much though, but that has not caused any further shake-ups, so they must be content.
It is a fundamentally sound but unremarkable squad with just a couple of high points in De Paul, goalkeeper Juan Musso and Kevin Lasagna, at least in some stretches of the season. It is a very physical outfit pretty much all around, starting with their slew of rugged defenders in the back, the potentially dominant but often inconsistent Seko Fofana in the midfield, Ken Sema on the left wing and especially Stefano Okaka up front. They surely have muscles in abundance and that is often enough to keep them in games even when they do not create all that much, which is a known flaw.
Adding Okaka has helped Lasagna too because he is better with a partner that can do the dirty work and open up some lanes for his supersonic speed, and he is always one to watch in this kind of fixture where they will mostly be prudent and counter, as they have done for years. He has been firing on all cylinders after the resumption and no defender can keep up with him. The main challenge will be to crack their defensive line, possibly early, to avoid unnecessarily eerie situations.
When De Paul is bottled up, the flanks offer a valuable release valve and both Sema and Jens Stryger Larsen, albeit very different type of players, are decent playmakers. The Swedish fullback can be a runaway train, while the Danish one is a fine crosser and they certainly do not lack height to exploit those.
Having lost both Rolando Mandragora and Mato Jajalo, they are very short-handed in the midfield and Walace is also said to be a little banged up so, with no other options left, they might move Larsen a few meters, since he is a capable ball handler, and insert a different wing-back, likely Hidde Ter Avest. They have no true pivots left. Or they can change their scheme altogether, which would make a lot of sense given the situation, but they have been very resistant to that.
They had a positive jolt in early July but have not been great lately, although Lasagna and De Paul galloping on fast-breaks give them a puncher’s chance in most occasions. They have had some troubles finishing matches and conceded some late goals, perhaps that is something that can be exploited.
3-5-2: Musso; Troost-Ekong, De Maio, Nuytinck; Larsen, Fofana, Walace, De Paul, Sema; Okaka, Lasagna.
Mandragora (knee), Jajalo (knee), Prodl (knee), Teodorczyk (knee).