Udinese v Juventus
Serie A Week 27 – Sunday, 5th March – 14:00 GMT – Stadio Friuli
Besides the pointless complains about the refereeing, the Coppa Italia tilt against Napoli was very compelling and revealing. Juventus started the game with a 3-4-1-2, or something similar, only to find out very soon that scheme with a three-man defence does not work anymore. Napoli were better in the first half and found the first goal with a well-designed action, where Kwadwo Asamoah was caught out of position. Luckily, the second half was much better and the squad gained a commanding lead ahead of the return leg, which will be played in a month.
My takeaway is that at this point of the year there is no time to improvise new formations: the coaching staff needs to ride 4-2-3-1, which has become indispensable in so little time, and eventually scale it back from a defensive standpoint during the games as they have often done effectively over the last month. The team has conceded very little with this tactic and Giorgio Chiellini explained why very clearly: even though they are not very stout on paper, they are more aggressive and especially more compact, there is much more density and that makes it easier to win the ball back and makes the defence less exposed to counter-attacks.
On Sunday, the Juventus will face Udinese at the regular time (3 pm in Italy), something that I despise very much but likely does not happen that often. The next match will be on Friday, so the lads will have a good amount of time to recover. However, it looks like the squad will be rotating heavily once again.
Gianluigi Buffon will be on goal, while the competion to start in the defence is pretty much wide open. Dani Alves and Alex Sandro are the favourites on the flanks, while there is much more uncertainty about the center-backs. The coach stated that he will choose between Giorgio Chiellini and Medhi Benatia, but it is not quite sure who their partner would be as it is not a slam dunk that Leonardo Bonucci will start. Benatia is a former Udinese player, so he could have extra motivation.
In the midfield, Stefano Sturaro will be sidelined because of a mild abdomen injury. I will have to say that him being used out of position has been my least favourite detail since the tactical switch, however the squad is thin upfront so we will have to live with that. Claudio Marchisio was held out of the Napoli bout but it was a really minor knee ailment and he is available and is the frontrunner to start, especially should Miralem Pjanic be rested. Tomas Rincon is the other option.
For a brief moment yesterday, it looked like Gonzalo Higuain was headed to the bench, but then the reports corrected the course and he is slated to start. Obviously, he is the one that played the most lately but I do not think this role is particularly tiring for him. Then, of course, he is thriving and that can make the fatigue go away. Massimiliano Allegri confirmed in the pre-game presser that the attack will remain the same as the last few matches.
4-2-3-1: Buffon; Alves, Benatia, Bonucci, Sandro; Khedira, Marchisio; Cuadrado, Dybala, Mandzukic; Higuain.
Sturaro (abdomen), Mandragora (foot)
Udinese are having a very uninspiring year: they are in fourteenth position and they have lost three games in a row. Their appointments have been rather boring: first Giuseppe Iachini and then Luigi Delneri. Themaudacious team from the four-five years ago seems long gone. They have unearthed some good players, but not some franchise-altering ones.
Rodrigo De Paul has been up and down all year, bouncing from position to position. Delneri is using him as right winger: he has some interesting dribbling skills, but he is not very quick and he is not a good finisher at all. He is a decent contributor, but not a game-wrecker. Adalberto Penaranda did not pan out and was sent back to Watford. Jakub Jankto, who was extremely solid at Ascoli last season, has grown into a dependable player and he is also rather versatile. The most interesting addition was Seko Fofana, a very elegant yet physical midfielder that they will be able to profit on in a big way.
They will be without Assane Gnoukouri, who unfortunately has been diagnosed with a heart condition right after his loan move in January, Davide Faraoni and Lucas Evangelista because of knee injuries. They are not starters. However, their leader Cyril Thereau is questionable and might miss the game: he routinely trains on his own for the whole week but the pre-game practice because of nagging knee problems, but this time around he has not re-joined the rest of the group on Friday. Delneri has confirmed that he will not play and will be spared for more feasibile match-ups.
They have few options to replace him: the most defensive one is Jantko, a winger turned into box-to-box midfield, in the trident. The other ones are Stipe Perica and Ryder Matos, who are definitely more offensive-minded. Nonetheless, they lose a lot both in playmaking and scoring without the French forward, who has carried them with nine goals since late October.
The defence will be very stingy and experienced: Silvan Widmer, Danilo, Felipe and Samir. Emil Hallfredsson has missed the last game because of a suspension but should return in his new role as deep-lying midfielder, supplanting Sven Kums. With Jankto more advanced, the midfield will be completed by Emmanuel Badu and Fofana. In the attack, the lack of scoring by Duvan Zapata has been an issue, but he remains a force to be reckon with because he is so muscular.
Their counter-attacking game is predictably very strong and almost their only source of offense. They have few long-distance shooters and also a good number of tall players good in the air, so Juventus will have to be very careful on set pieces. They will probably deploy a very conservative game plan, so the guys will have to take their time to work around the defence.
4-2-3-1: Karnezis; Widmer, Danilo, Felipe, Samir; Badu, Hallfredsson, Fofana; De Paul, Zapata, Jankto.
Thereau (knee), Gnoukouri (heart), Faraoni (knee), Evangelista (knee).