A quick look at the top four in the Serie A standings is half predictable, half "What the hell is going on here, people?" Juventus being atop the table isn't really a surprise to anybody who has any kind of calcio knowledge. Neither is Roma being just a couple of points behind the three-time defending Serie A champions. But that's when the predictability ends.
In third? Genoa.
In fourth? Sampdoria.
Just like we drew it up! Or maybe not. Yeah, definitely not.
That means Sampdoria's annual visit to Juventus Stadium has suddenly become a top of the table clash. Wait, what? No, you damn right, man. And with Roma playing high-flying Genoa, the Serie A weekend has become just that much more interesting. So you could say it's Serie A's No. 1 and No. 2 teams vs. the city of Genoa. Oh, what fun there could be!
But our rooting interest involves the league's first- and fourth-place teams converging on the Juventus Stadium field for one of the last games before the holiday break arrives. And what a merry Christmas it would be if, say, Juventus went into the time of year where wear rip open boxes of presents winter champions once more.
The man has a point, ya know.
Juventus have two games left before the annual holiday break. And while this is a relatively surprising top four clash between Juve and Samp, it's a very good team who have been in the top half of the table all season long coming to Turin for a lunchtime kickoff. So grab a sandwich and a cup of coffee and watch Juve try and lock up the title of winter champion.
Sounds like a nice thing to brag about during your company Christmas party again, huh.
Juventus has qualified for the Round of 16 in the Champions League. They're at the top of the Serie A table through the first three months of the season. And they haven't lost a game in all competitions since they messed the bed against Genoa in October. Sounds like a good run of form to me, guys and gals.
Another piece of good news: Claudio Marchisio, who missed the midweek Champions League clash with Atlético Madrid with the flu, gave himself a clean bill of health earlier in the week. That means he should be ready to play. Good times, good times.
While the injury list is shrinking, there are still the usual suspects out injured. That means no Andrea Barzagli, Martín Cáceres, Kwadwo Asamoah and Romulo. Gee, if I didn't know any better, I'd say I've typed out those names before...
(And a selfish piece of bad news: Scroll down to the bottom of the preview and see what time kickoff is at for those of us who leave on the West Coast. This is one of those times where living in California isn't very enjoyable.)
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
1. Does Manolo Gabbiadini actually play?
By now, Gabbiadini — who is co-owned by Juventus and Sampdoria — being in negotiations over a potential transfer to Napoli this January isn't a secret to anybody. Things continue to progress as we make our way toward the opening of the latest transfer window next month. So, the question above stands. Does Gabbiadini actually play even though he's relatively close to a move to Napoli? Or, with Sampdoria playing so well this season, does Siniša Mihajlović roll out one of his best players not matter what is currently going on with Gabbiadini's potential move away from the club? It didn't stop the Samp manager from doing so in his team's last game, and the 23-year-old striker then went out to score a goal and set up another. If that's any hint as to where Mihajlović's thinking is, then I guess Juve's defense will have prepare for Manolo.
2. Can Juventus close the 2014 portion of their schedule with a bang?
There's still one more game to go after this one before the holiday and new year break arrives. But for all intents and purposes, a game against an opponent in the top four has a little more priority than one that's currently sitting in the relegation zone like where the next round's challenger, Cagliari, currently resides. Based on the pure location of both Juventus and Sampdoria, this game is a big one. It doesn't have the Scudetto-laced storylines as Juventus-Roma, but it's still a meeting of Serie A's two most in-form clubs. That should be enough motivation right there for Juventus to do exactly what they've been doing the last six weeks — not lose.
Ever since I wrote that Álvaro Morata should — and deserves to — get the chance to start on a regular basis, the young Spanish striker has played as many minutes on the field as any of us have. That's a big fat zero, with all of that playing time going to the other Spaniard on the Juventus roster. Is that a bad thing? Well, yes and no. Max Allegri is loyal to Fernando Llorente, and that's perfectly understandable. But Llorente has been struggling all season long in a different kind of role compared to his last season when he was one of the better strikers in Serie A. When will the landscape shift and give Morata at least one start? To be honest, I have absolutely no idea at this point. But as time goes by and Llorente continues to either a) not score goals or b) not contribute to goals being scored, then the clamoring for Morata to get playing time will only continue to grow.
4. Will the real Arturo Vidal please stand the heck up?
In the grand scheme of things, the number of times King Arturo was linked with a move to Manchester United far outnumber the number of vintage Vidal performance we've seen. Even though he's played in 16 of Juventus' 20 games in all competitions this season, there have been few times where Vidal has truly looked like Vidal, let alone put really good performances on back-to-back appearances. This is the Vidal we've seen this season, one that is inconsistent at best and doesn't resemble the one of years past. As much as it could be natural, it's too convenient to not consider Vidal's pre-World Cup injuries at least playing some kind of role in what is going on now. There's one thing for certain, though: Out of all the Juventus players that need some rest over the holiday break, Vidal is probably close to the top of that list.
5. The Angelo Ogbonna-Leonardo Bonucci partnership in the center of the Juventus defense.
Giorgio Chiellini needed a rest just by the sheer volume of games he's been playing lately. And now that he's missing tomorrow afternoon's game against Sampdoria thanks to his yellow card in the scoreless draw with Fiorentina, it's Ogbonna's time to step into the center of defense. This will be the first time Ogbonna has played alongside Bonucci since Allegri switched to a four-man backline, meaning this will be one of the few occasions the former Torino defender will get to be in the middle of a Juventus defense. Before then during Allegri's tenure as manager, we've mostly seen Ogbonna on the left or right of a 3-5-2 — which is not all to surprising considering Bonucci has been the main in the center of Juve's three-man defense when utilized. But now Ogbonna, who has been in extremely good form this season, will get the chance to partner with Bonucci against a Sampdoria side that is averaging a little over a goal per game so far this season.
My starting XI (4-3-2-1): Buffon; Lichtsteiner, Bonucci, Ogbonna, Evra; Vidal, Marchisio, Pogba; Tévez, Pereyra; Morata
OFFICIAL KICKOFF TIME: 12:30 P.M. IN ITALY; 6:30 A.M. ON THE EAST COAST; 3:30 A.M. ON THE WEST COAST
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