Maybe it's a product of Juventus' crappy opening month or two, but I find myself checking the Serie A table a lot more in the first half of this season compared to others. A lot of it has to do with the constant checking to how far Juve has risen during this recent improvement of form. But it's also has to do with the fact of how many teams they still need to jump over to get back into the Scudetto race full swing.
Every time I've checked said table, one name has been at the top or very, very close to it: Fiorentina.
Who is Juventus playing on Sunday night? Yeah, Fiorentina.
This isn't quite the prototypical top-of-the-table clash between first and second because Juve currently sits in fifth place entering the weekend. But this is as good as it will get in the first half of the Serie A season — and especially that much more magnified with another big-time matchup in Roma-Napoli also going down on Sunday.
This is what a certain Turin-born midfield Claudio Marchisio had to say about the match earlier in the week:
"Fiorentina are an excellent side and they deserve to be where they are at this moment in time. We'll need to be on our toes, even if we're playing at home. We've shown considerable consistency of late with the five league wins in a row, but we know that there remains plenty of work to be done."
If this match was taking place in the middle of October rather than the middle of December, I don't even know what kind of feelings I'd have about it. But, as Marchisio points out, Juventus has been able to find a whole lot of consistency during the winning streak. Of course, that goes hand-in-hand, but it can't be forgotten. Juventus has been able to pick one positive result after another — at least before that final day of the Champions League group stage — and rise up the table because of it.
So now as they face one hell of a test in a surprisingly really good Fiorentina team,
Three more points combined with a Napoli win or draw against Roma and Juventus will officially be in the Scudetto conversation (if they aren't already). This is the time for Juve to make a statement and say that they are legitimate title contenders as the first half of the season approaches.
They've got Fiorentina at their house this weekend. Now it's time to use it to their advantage.
Players returning from injuries! This is wonderful news!
Fiorentina is good. There's no denying that now.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
1. Paulo Sousa vs. Max Allegri in a managerial royale.
I haven't gone straight for manager-on-manager dueling much this season, but I feel like it's appropriate in this case. In one corner you have the new guy in Serie A who has taken Fiorentina into territory that has surpassed just about everybody's expectations. In the other, you've got Mad Max, who has righted the ship after the ever-so-difficult start to Year No. 2 in charge at Juventus. This is one of the games where the game within the game between the two managers will definitely be one of the biggest talking points no matter who ends up winning. These are two of the hottest teams in Serie A right now and a win over Fiorentina will be the latest statement that will tell us Juventus are seriously on the right track back to seriously getting into the Scudetto hunt.
2. How the return of Mario Mandzukic impacts Juve's attack.
Álvaro Morata may be completely out of form, but the same can't be said for Mr. Mario Mandzukic. His WhoScored rating might not be the most glamorous, but his production says otherwise — three goals in his last five games in all competitions. That's why he's here, that's why he was signed. Knowing that Juventus will almost certainly be in a 3-5-2 and there's the possibility of Alex Sandro playing on the left wing, Mandzukic's importance is just that much more significant. His rapport with Paulo Dybala is getting better, too, so there's plenty of reasons why Mandzukic has been able to get right after his own difficult start to life in Turin. And in a game between two really good defenses, one chance might be the difference. Mandzukic is the kind of player who can make that difference.
3. Juventus' defense vs. Fiorentina striker Nikola Kalinic.
One of the biggest reasons why Juventus has been able to get back into the top third of the Serie A table is because the defense has gotten its act together in the last six weeks. Juventus enters tomorrow night's game on the back of three straight shutout wins. But they won't only be facing one of Serie A's highest-scoring teams, but one of the early season's most productive strikers in Kalinic. Only Eder and the absolutely insane Gonzalo Higuain have more goals than 27-year-old Kalinic, who arrived in the summer from Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. (Say that club name three times fast.) He's big, tall, strong and potent in front of goal. Sounds like a certain Croatian striker we just talked about, doesn't it? We know which Croatian we want to have the better night on Sunday. And if Juventus' defense continues to play like it has in recent weeks, that could very well take place — which is totally okay with those of us who like things in black and white.
My starting lineup
Juventus XI (3-5-2): Gianluigi Buffon; Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini; Stephan Lichtsteiner, Stefano Sturaro, Claudio Marchisio, Paul Pogba, Alex Sandro; Paulo Dybala, Mario Mandzukic
TV: Rai International (United States and Canada); BT Sport 1 (United Kingdom); Sky Sport 1 HD Italia, Sky Calcio 1, Sky Supercalcio HD (Italy)
Online: BT Sport Live Streaming (United Kingdom); Sky Go Italia (Italy)
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