I want to start this ultra-important game preview off with a little bit of audience participation.
First, raise your hand if you expected Juventus to be at the top of the table coming out of the winter break. You won't be the only one. It's not exactly odd to say the two-time defending champions will be at the top looking down at everybody else
Okay, one more of these things.
Raise your hand if you expected Roma to be Juventus' closest competition coming out of the winter break. Don't be scared. You can admit you were right. And if you are, bravo to you for predicting that Roma wouldn't be the same Roma we've seen that past couple of years — the one that provided laughs upon laughs upon even more laughs.
But this Roma isn't that same as that Roma. Not even close.
Come tomorrow night in Turin, the best Serie A has to offer will be stepping onto the Juventus Stadium field for what will be one of the most anticipated games there will be this campaign. Two weeks of holiday break will have come and passed, and it will finally be time for Italy's top dog to face its closest competition.
Not a bad way to start off 2014, huh?
This is the game that everybody has been waiting for the minute the final games of 2013 ended. With a victory, Juventus has the chance to put serious room between themselves and the competition. While, at the same time, Roma can cut Juve's lead atop the Serie A table to all of two points with a win of their own.
So many potential outcomes, so many different angles regarding the most important game of the season to date.
Or, we could just ask Stephan Lichtsteiner for his final score prediction (or what I will pretend is one).
Sorry, but I'm not sorry.
A quick look at the Serie A table tells me this.
1. Juventus 46 points
2. Roma 41 points
Plus-5 is cool, especially when it's going into a head-to-head matchup with your closest competition.
Then you add in the fact that Juventus have won nine straight games, and it just gets better and better. If only that shutout streak was still intact. Then it would be some kind of trifecta of awesomeness that you would want to keep going and going and going. Sounds about right.
Roma looked like the team from the first couple of months of the season in their 4-0 win over Catania before the winter break got underway. Maybe it was because they were playing the club that's sitting dead last in Serie A at the moment, maybe it was something else. But whenever you drop a poker on somebody, it's never a bad thing.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
1. The match fitness status of Andrea Pirlo.
The question: Will The Beard play?
The answer: More and more 'Yes!' as the days go by this week.
Pirlo's race to full fitness saw him arrive back at Vinovo a few days earlier than the rest of his teammates. Agree with it or not, Pirlo wants to try and be as close to 100 percent fit as possible when Sunday's match against Roma arrives. And if that means he's trying to get in the lineup that faces Roma, then so be it. Pirlo was part of the full squad that trained with Conte on Wednesday and then played 45 minutes off the bench in a friendly 24 hours later, which seems like a pretty good indicator that he's on his way to being healthy for Roma's visit to Turin. It seems like the only question that remains is a pretty simple one: How the heck will Pirlo play? There's only one way to find out...
2. Juventus' attack vs. Roma's defense.
For a good portion of the season, Roma's goal differential was insane. That was mainly due to the fact Roma was putting up shutout after shutout. Four draws in their last six games has put a bit of a halt to their goal differential number, but they've still allowed only seven goals all season. Yeah, seven goals. The whole season. Juventus' attack will be their biggest challenge for Roma to date, there's no doubt about it.
3. Juventus' defense vs. Roma's attack.
Without looking at the stats, guess how many goals Roma's leading scorer has. Go ahead and do it, I dare you. They're nowhere near the top of the Serie A scoring chart. And here's another hint: You can count the number of goals on one hand. That's all you need. The answer: Four Roma players lead the team with four goals on the season. For comparison's sake, Juventus' top four goal scorers — Carlos Tevez, Arturo Vidal, Fernando Llorente and Paul Pogba — have combined for 28 goals this season.
4. The Arturo Vidal vs. Kevin Strootman battle royale.
Two of the best and most physical midfielders in all of the world will likely go up against one another a number of times Sunday night. To put it in simple terms, Vidal and Strootman are a couple of bad dudes. And by 'bad dudes,' I mean that they're a couple of hard-nosed midfielders who rack up tackles like they're going out of style. They are certainly the warriors of the midfield for each team. And if there's a crunching tackle or two — or five — between the two come tomorrow night, I won't be too surprised at all. That's just how they play.
5. The tactical battle between Antonio Conte and Rudi Garcia.
If you told me two of the best managers in Serie A are facing one another tomorrow night, I wouldn't disagree with you. We know what Conte has done over the past two-plus years because we follow Juventus on a daily basis. But it deserves to be noted that Garcia has done absolute wonders to turn Roma from what they were the past few years into what they have been this season. Just look at the mess Roma was last season on the defensive side of things compared to this year. It's a completely different story.
My starting XI (3-5-2): Buffon; Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini; Lichtsteiner, Vidal, Pirlo, Pogba, 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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