Juventus-Cagliari Preview: Round 19 — Hitting the midway point

Claudio Villa

The beginning of 2014 looked a lot like the end of 2013 — Juventus beating the competition in Serie A by a considerable margin on the scoreboard. Juve recorded a shutout, just like so many other matches have ended over the course of the current 10-game winning streak.

This Juventus is different than the one that started out the season. I think I'm not the only one who recognizes that. And since we'll officially hit the midway point in less than 24 hours,

Juventus' game against Cagliari in Sardinia is the final game of the first half of the season. Eighteen Serie A games have come and gone this season. Through those 18 games, Juventus are eight points clear of the competition following last Sunday's 3-0 triumph over Roma.

But don't tell that to Antonio Conte, who had this to say at his pre-match press conference on Saturday morning.

"We need to keep showing consistency. The win over Roma is now forgotten about, it's part of the past and it would be very dangerous if that weren't the case."

If that's not a classic pre-match Conte line, I don't know what is.

Yes, Juventus are officially winter champions following their win over Roma. But Conte doesn't just want the winter title in his pocket, he wants the everything that comes with that pretty trophy at the end of the season. I can't say I blame him. He's kinda here for Scudetto-winning reasons in the first place. And even though Juventus have the chance to win a record 11th straight game tomorrow afternoon against Cagliari, Conte's eyes are on the big picture.

To be honest, that's what he should be concerned about.

As you were, Antonio.

GOOD NEWS

Juventus winning streak update: 10 games, 26 goals scored, 1 goal allowed.

This has been a Juventus winning streak update.

BAD NEWS

Andrea Barzagli is suspended due to yellow card accumulation. To some, like me, this is bad news because Andrea Barzagli is one of the most awesome players there is. But with the bad news comes this piece of good news: Martin Caceres will get playing time because of Barzagli's suspension. And that, for people like me, means they will be wearing their socks a little higher than normal because we love us some Caceres.

Okay, so maybe Caceres playing isn't such bad news.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

1. How Cagliari defends Andrea Pirlo.

Some teams like somebody directly in Pirlo's grill, other teams give him all the space he wants to operate. How Cagliari's predicted 4-3-1-2 formation goes about defending Pirlo will be an interesting case. Do they have their trequartista, Andrea Cossu, try some kind of marking on Pirlo? Or will they go about things differently? We've seen teams play off of Pirlo and then pay for it dearly. But not a lot of teams have a natural marker in place like Cagliari's formation essentially does.

2. Fernando Llorente's impact.

It's not like Llorente has suddenly gone back to being a player off his game. Maybe he's simply cooled off a bit from when he first became a regular starter under Conte. The big Spaniard has scored one goal in his last five games in all competitions, which isn't so bad considering he's contributed in other areas. But I'm pretty sure I share the line of thinking that it would be nice to get El Rey León a goal, right? He's come a long way since he's broken into the lineup, and to get him going on all cylinders once again would be such a huge boost to what is a Juve side that has scored a Serie A-high 42 goals this season.

3. The Radja Nainggolan-less Cagliari midfield.

Nainggolan leaving Cagliari during the January transfer window was seemingly inevitable. They knew when it was going to happen. It wasn't a matter of if, just a matter of when Nainggolan would be on his way and sign with a bigger team. That day came this past Tuesday when Nainggolan joined Roma on loan for the rest of the season. You'd like to think that Cagliari were planning for life without Radja over the winter break because the inevitable was almost upon them — and now it is.

4. Where Cagliari's offense may or may not come from.

Cagliari enter the weekend with the chance to say they have something in common with Roma — their leading scorer(s) have only recorded four goals all season. The difference, obviously, is that Cagliari doesn't have the crazy-good kind of goal differential that Roma has this season. Cagliari's two starting strikers — Victor Ibarbo and Marco Sau — have combined for six goals all season. Just to put that in perspective, Carlos Tevez has nearly doubled that number on his own this season. When you're going against a damn good defense like Juventus has, that's not exactly a recipe for success for Cagliari.

5. If the Juventus train can keep on rolling.

Like I said, Juve have the chance to do what hasn't been accomplished since the early 1930s — win 11 straight games. Juventus have gone from looking up at Roma in the league table to having a nice comfortable lead atop the mountain in a hurry. It's been a rapid rise, thanks in large part to the post-Fiorentina embarrassment winning streak. Conte has made it no secret that he doesn't want any kind of complacency from his team even though their lead over Roma has reached a season-high eight points. And who are we to disagree with Antonio? I know i won't.

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

OFFICIALL KICKOFF TIME: 3 P.M. IN ITALY; 9 A.M. ON THE EAST COAST; 6 A.M. ON THE WEST COAST

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