Champions League Preview: Juventus vs. Real Madrid — Rising to the occasion

Valerio Pennicino

THE CHAMPIONS! Sing the anthem!

In a perfect world, Juventus probably wouldn't have to face one of the best teams in Europe right now. They'd be going up against one of Serie A's relegation battlers, at home in front of a Juventus Stadium crowd that is supporting them in full voice. It would be, safe to say, the right kind of cure to what is currently the problem(s).

Turns out, though, the world ain't perfect. And neither is this Juventus side right now. Far from it.

Juventus travel to Madrid as a team that is far from its best. Even before Sunday's 4-2 (insert expletive here) loss to Fiorentina, things weren't resembling the Juventus of old under Antonio Conte. But the thing that Giuseppe Rossi & Friends did was only confirm that this Juventus team, right now, isn't up to the lofty standards they have put upon themselves. Things aren't right, and it's safe to say that everybody knows it.

But the thing about Wednesday night's game against Real Madrid could possibly prove is two-fold.

1. Conte and Juventus will show us that the second-half beatdown at the hands of Fiorentina was the perfect reality check that everybody needed.

OR...

2. This current period of mediocre, mistake-filled play will roll on, showing that Sunday's loss wasn't just a one-time thing.

Conte's men will be the underdogs. There's no denying that. And even if his squad was playing a lot better than they were right now, Conte seems perfectly okay with being the team that people are betting against. With that comes the ability to use it as a motivational factor, one that (hopefully) is something that this team can get to snap out of this funk.

Or maybe just that fact that they're playing Real Madrid is enough. If not, maybe they're in the wrong line of work and things could look a lot like the last time Juve played one of Europe's fellow giants.

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GOOD NEWS

I'll get back to you on this one.

BAD NEWS

Don't know why I even put this section in this particular preview. Everything's great. No need to worry at all.

WHAT TO WATCH

1. Juventus' mental state.

In the past, Juventus have been able to put terrible performances behind them as soon as possible. That's what has been one of the most impressive things about the Conte era. They get kicked in the mouth, but seem to rebound the very next time out. Obviously that's going to have to happen again if Juve want any kind of positive result in Madrid, and maybe the loss in Florence was actually something that this team needed to happen, as hard as it may be to believe.

2. Fernando Llorente and his return to Spain.

While everybody is understandably focusing on the mess that was everything post-65th-minute from the Fiorentina loss, one of the bright spots is certainly the way Llorente played. He was involved in the build-up, created chances for both himself and his teammates, and certainly showed that he is getting "there" when it comes to being a part of this Juventus squad. His next test is in Madrid — a place he knows pretty darn well. If he continues to build on the foundation that has already been set, good things are going to happen at the Bernabeu. To what extent, that's still to be determined.

3. The impact of Carlos Tevez.

General thought: Juventus were good enough to win Serie A last season with the group of strikers they had on the roster and the only thing holding them back on the European stage was somebody who could make a big-time difference up top.

Enter Carlitos.

Tevez was, of course, brought to Juventus to help win a third straight league title. But, he was also signed to make a drastic change to how things previously were in the Champions League. And especially so in games like the one taking pace tomorrow night in Madrid. Tevez doesn't have a goal to his name in Europe this season, but a quick check of WhoScored tells us something — he's attempted a ton of shots. They might not have all gone on target or even come close to it. But a striker of Tevez's skill level is bound to hit the target. And in a game that sees the opposition with a plethora of offensive threats, Juventus will need one of its best to be on top form.

4. Whether or not Arturo Vidal plays.

This time, it may not be because of discipline, either. Vidal's substitute appearance didn't make a difference on the scoreboard, but it has left Conte wondering if he will have one of his most important players available to him. We can discuss the disciplinary actions all we want, but it's pretty safe to say that Juve need Vidal to be on the field against a side as good as Madrid.

5. A couple guys named Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.

Two of the most expensive players in the history of the game could very well be two of Juventus' biggest worries defensively. We all know about Ronaldo's dominance in the Champions League since he arrived in Madrid — as well as vast majority of his career — as he's scored goals in bunches. It's no different this season, scoring five goals already in the group stages. That's pretty, uh, impressive.

Then there's Bale, who was in Madrid's squad over the weekend against Malaga — as our friends over at Managing Madrid informed us — and played all of about 20 minutes off the bench in the 2-0 victory. Your best guess is probably as good as mine when it comes to saying whether or not he's completely fit to start against Juventus. Say whatever you want about his pricetag that allowed him to move to Spain, but there's one thing for certain: Bale is really, really good at what he does, and when things click with Ronaldo, Madrid will even that much more potent offensively.

And just because there isn't enough to fear about Madrid's attacking prowess, throw in Angel Di Maria into all this. Goddamn Real Madrid has got some good wingers.

6. Stupid mistakes and how many of them could happen.

The way Juventus are playing, it's not a matter of if they will have something idiotic happen, it's a matter of when they will take place. This Juve team is allowing goals at a rapid pace. So much so that they're already halfway to last year's total of 20 goals allowed in Serie A. Did I mention we're not even to the final week of October yet? The defense, at least in the last half-hour against Fiorentina resembled the cleanliness of a college dorm room — all over the freaking place. But before that, the Juventus defense was like that of what we're used to. And then, as we all know, it went to hell.

My starting XI (4-4-2): Manninger; Mellberg, Legrottaglie, Chiellini, Molinaro; Marchionni, Sissoko, Tiago, Nedved; Del Piero, Amauri

Ah, crap. That was the last time Juventus were at the Bernabeu in 2008. For real this time...

My starting XI (3-5-2): Buffon; Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini; Lichtsteiner, Vidal, Pirlo, Marchisio, Asamoah; Llorente, Tevez

OFFICIAL KICKOFF TIME: 8:45 P.M. IN ITALY; 2:45 P.M. ON THE EAST COAST; 11:45 A.M. ON THE WEST COAST

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