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Juventus vs. Empoli Preview: Round 10 — Getting back on the horse

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Valerio Pennicino

It was almost the same time of October just a year ago. Juventus had just been blitzed by Fiorentina in Florence, seeing a 2-0 lead seemingly vanish in a blink of the eye. We thought Juve were on their way to a simple win, instead, it turned out the final score was a 4-2 loss and a good amount of humiliation in the process.

Juventus used that day in October of last year as a reality check. It was a game where Juve's struggles came full circle, the misfortunes of weeks past compounded into one absolute dismantling that took about 30 minutes to complete. The Juventus squad and their manager, Antonio Conte, knew what had to be done — they needed to reboot and refocus after what went down against Fiorentina.

They did that. They ripped off win after win after win. They didn't just pass up Roma atop the Serie A table, they zoomed right by them like Conte was driving a Bugatti with the top down, his foot firmly on the gas pedal and the music blaring some old-school rock with plenty of thump.

It was the perfect way to respond to a massive punch right in the gut. They realized things needed to change, and did it with the only way they know how — beating the competition and proving once again they are champions. And not just beating them, but beating them with precision and focus, effectiveness and drive. Regardless of what Juve did or didn't do in the Champions League last season, you can't say they didn't handle business domestically in just about every game following the debacle against Fiorentina.

This is the challenge that now faces Max Allegri and this season's version of Juventus. They weren't throttled like what happened 12 months ago, but Juventus' last-minute 1-0 loss to Genoa can be looked at the same way the defeat in Florence was — the culmination of what has been a not-so-good last couple of weeks. Allegri's Juve has never truly hit its stride this season, and the past two weeks since the latest international break only proves that point further. They've gone from beating Roma in wild fashion to stumbling against Olympiacos and Genoa in a seven-day period.

This Juventus team is in a funk. There's no denying that. The seriousness of it will likely vary from person to person. But trying to convince ourselves otherwise would mask the true problems this team has. It's not just the manager, it's not just the formation, it's not just very good players not playing up to their potential. It's pretty much everything above, and then probably a little more than that.

Empoli will not be the biggest challenge Juventus face this season. Nope, not even close. But for one day on the first of November, Empoli is the most important game of the season. That's where things start — or restart — once again. They got their misstep out of the way. Now it's time to get back to business.

The rebirth of this season starts tomorrow night in Tuscany. Or at least it should. That's the only thing to do.

GOOD NEWS

Check back with me in about 24 hours, then I'll let you know.

BAD NEWS

Do I need to remind any of you what happened the last time Juventus stepped onto a field? Yeah, I won't go there.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

1. Daniele Rugani vs. Juventus' forwards.

Much in the same vein as Domenico Berardi and Simone Zaza are leading the way for young Italian forwards, Daniele Rugani is one of the brightest defensive prospects there is in Italy these days. His performances so far this season earned him a call-cup to the Italian national team during the past international break — only to drop back down to the Azzurrini do to an injury. Either way, there's no doubting that Rugani has a big-time future written all over him, especially since he's more than holding his own in his first Serie A season at the tender age of 20. Let's just throw this out there: How much would Rugani's stock rise if he holds his own against a striker like Carlos Tévez and/or Álvaro Morata? Exactly.

2. Squad rotation, will we actually see it?

How optimistic are some Italian media outlets about Allegri actually resting some of his big players? Well, let's see what the Gazzetta dello Sport is thinking come Friday morning's updated predicted starting lineup.

Juve XI vs. Empoli?

Not exactly the kind of squad rotation a manager might go through with against a team like Empoli, huh? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Juventus need points against Empoli tomorrow night, therefore causing Allegri to roll with pretty much everybody who started against Genoa over the weekend. And let's not forget, Allegri did say in the build up to the Genoa match that there would be some kind of squad rotation. Turns out, it wasn't much at all, so there's that to really hang our hat on. You'd have to think that shaking things up is what's needed after a loss like what happened against Genoa. Not just to get some other guys playing time, but just to try and find a spark within a squad that clearly needs one.

3. This has to be where Álvaro Morata starts a Serie A game ... right?

If anything, we've come to find out that Mad Max is quite loyal to Fernando Llorente. The problem with doing so is that one of Juventus' most out of form players is on the field more often than the striker who should be there instead. Morata has proven to be productive almost every time he has stepped onto the field this season. If it's for 10 minutes or 40, the young Spaniard has shown that he has — at least in small segments of time each appearance — what it takes to be successful at Juventus. His lone start was a bright spot in an otherwise glum trip to Greece last week. A lot of us thought that would mean he'd get another start, but it never materialized. Hopefully that chance comes against Empoli. You can't say Morata hasn't at least earned the chance to show what he can do on a consistent basis from the opening whistle. That's for damn sure.

4. Will the real Arturo Vidal please stand up?

We've talked a lot about the severe dip in form from Fernando Llorente, but not so much with Arturo Vidal. Juventus' star midfielder has had his moments this season, but he's been anything but consistent. Consider him consistently inconsistent ever since he's returned from World Cup duty this summer. Is it injury related? Who the hell knows, really. But it's certainly true that amongst the struggling players wearing bianconero this season, Vidal's form is amongst the most puzzling to figure out. One thing is for certain: If Juventus wants to snap out of this funk, they're going to need Vidal to do the same. And in quick order, too. Come a few days — and weeks from now — there's a couple of incredibly important Champions League games on the schedule. Having Vidal be vintage Vidal would be a pretty nice sight.

5. The bottom line.

Juventus has no business losing to a team destined for a relegation battle like Empoli. That's not being cocky, that's just the simple truth. The same goes for just about every other team in the bottom half of the table that Juventus is vastly superior to. That's just how it works. Juventus didn't get to where they did under Conte by taking it easy against the provincial Serie A clubs or by furthering the damage done domestically following that Fiorentina loss last season. If the loss to Genoa was the kind of reality check Juventus needed, then it will turn out to be a positive in the long run even though it doesn't seem like it right now. How Juve responds on the field against Empoli will be the most important thing. If they play the way they're capable of, then we'll know a last-second gut punch at the Marassi

My starting XI (3-5-2): Buffon; Ogbonna, Marrone Bonucci, Chiellini; Pereyra, Vidal, Marchisio, Pogba, Asamoah; Tévez, Morata

OFFICIAL KICKOFF TIME: 6 P.M. IN ITALY; 1 P.M. ON THE EAST COAST; 10 A.M. ON THE WEST COAST