Juventus entered the international break playing as well as we've seen the play all season long. For a manager that has his team conveniently hit its stride in October and November, Antonio Conte has done it again and teams that have been in Juve's path the past five weeks have seen a different team than the one to begin the season.
And while Juve aren't beginning this post-international break period with as difficult a game (at Livorno) than they did the last time around (at Fiorentina), this is a different team than the one that showed up in Florence and proceeded to get smacked in the mouth during a second-half meltdown of unmatched proportions.
But that was then, this is now.
Juventus come out of the international break with plenty of missing pieces. They also come out of the international break just one point off the pace of Roma in the Serie A table. That might not have been the thing I imagined happening a month ago when everything seemed to fall apart within a couple minutes against Giuseppe Rossi and la Viola. But it proved to the perfect reality check Conte's squad needed. And since then, they've been getting back to being the team we're used to seeing.
So, gents, shall we continue what we've started? I'd be okay with that.
Conte: We know that #LivornoJuve will be a difficult encounter. Every team we face will play the game of their lives against us.— JuventusFC (@juventusfcen) November 23, 2013
Remember when Juventus were giving up stupid goals that made you want to bash your head against the wall? Yeah, that was pretty annoying. Luckily, a big part of this recent turnaround has been the defense eliminating pretty much all of the mistakes they were making in the early part of the season and have gotten back to what they do best — racking up clean sheets.
Juve haven't conceded a goal in 370 Serie A mins. 197 mins away from breaking the clean sheet record under Conte.— Chelston D'souza (@chelston_dsouza) November 23, 2013
When you're in that kind of territory with all that Conte has already accomplished at Juve as manager, you know you're doing something right. And is there a better way to commemorate Gigi Buffon's 500th appearance in Serie A than with another shutout, three points, and being able to say you're atop the league standings all by yourself?
Exactly, there is nothing better than that.
With all the good Juve's defense has been doing before the international break, there's just one problem: The number of defenders eligible to play can be counted on one hand. Leonardo Bonucci? Suspended. Angelo Ogbonna? Suspended. Andrea Barzagli? Returned from international duty with Italy injured. Stephan Lichtsteiner and Mauricio Isla? They're both injured, too.
It's obviously anything close to being the ideal situation. Just thank goodness for Juve having quality depth.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
1. Will the injuries and suspensions cause Antonio Conte to change formations?
A couple days ago I would have thought Conte shaking things up due to all the missing pieces might very well happen. Now? Not so much. The injury to Barzagli might have been the thing that keeps things the way they have been for Conte much of this season. Translation: The 3-5-2 probably isn't going to be temporarily scrapped due to all the injuries. And it's the logical way to go. If Barzagli was fit, Martin Caceres probably would have been at right back. But since there's no Barzagli on the list of call-ups for tomorrow's match, the options have become even that much more limited.
2. Will we get Arturo Vidal the midfielder or Arturo Vidal the makeshift defender?
It's been two years since we even had the thought of Vidal playing in defense pop into our head. But because of all the injuries and suspensions, having him play as a defender is a distinct possibility. And not just as a defender, but as the center man in Juve's three-man defense. Judging by how awesome Vidal is, I don't doubt he'd be able to handle it despite his lack of experience in that role. He was more than capable as a central defender in a four-man defense two years ago, so I'm sure he'll be able to handle things in the middle of a 3-5-2 formation. Why? Because it's Arturo Vidal.
3. Who starts alongside Carlos Tevez if Conte goes with a 3-5-2?
If I was suddenly transported to into Conte's head, we'd know the answer by now. But since I'm sitting in California instead of Turin, somebody else, it's just a guessing game at this point. Some folks are saying Fabio Quagliarella will get the start, others are thinking that Conte will keep things consistent and stick with the Tevez-Fernando Llorente combination that we saw for most of the last month. Whatever combination it is, it seems like we know one thing — Carlos Tevez will play from the start like he has pretty much every game this season.
4. Can Juventus keep the train rolling?
This is, of course, the big question — no matter what the starting lineup ends up being. Ever since Juventus lost in Madrid, they've been getting better. Steps forward are good. I like seeing this team taking steps forward. But sometimes you never really know with this team coming out of international breaks. They might be the same team that entered the two-week break, they might come out as flat as a board. We've seen an international break derail Juve's form before. And coming off a 3-0 thumping of Napoli, it would have been nice to see Juve line up a few days later and keep the roll going. The reality is, though, they've had to wait a couple weeks to get that chance.
My starting XI (3-5-2): Buffon; Caceres, Vidal, Chiellini; Padoin, Pogba, Pirlo, Marchisio, Asamoah; Llorente, Tevez
OFFICIAL KICKOFF TIME: 3 P.M. IN ITALY; 9 A.M. ON THE EAST COAST; 6 A.M. ON THE WEST COAST