There are nine days to go before Christmas. You can finally count the amount of days to go before the Christmas presents get torn apart and the living room turns into a mess on two fingers. Max Allegri only has one thing on his mind. No, not what he’s going to buy Valentina for Christmas this season. It’s three points. Three glorious points that will ensure Juventus go into the holiday break with a four-point lead at the very minimum.
There are two games to go before the holiday break arrives — Saturday night against Roma and then the Italian Super Cup against Milan seven days from now. That’s it. And that’s why instead of preparing for Serie A action next weekend, Juventus will be heading to the Middle East after the game against Roma.
But first, there’s the little matter of the top-of-the-table clash against Roma at Juventus Stadium. It has received quite a bit of talk in the Italian press over the last two or three days — and rightfully so. Juventus has been the gold standard in Serie A for the last five-plus seasons, while Roma has been playing the role of one of Juve’s bridesmaid for the better part of the Bianconeri’s title run over the last half-decade.
Roma have been in quite good form lately, suffering just one loss since the end of September in all competitions. That doesn’t seem very Roma-like, does it? Well, for some, they may just be waiting for the inevitable Roma crash back down to earth. Others may be thinking that Roma are actually contenders since Juventus haven’t been totally running away with the Serie A title just yet.
This is the game where any of their credentials get tested.
As much as Allegri is saying that this meeting with Roma doesn’t decide anything in the final verdict of the 2016-17 Serie A season, to know that your lead atop the standings going into the Supercoppa will be at worst four points, that will have to be refreshing. And when you throw into the fact that coming out of the holiday break there the second half of the season is basically upon us, having a comfortable lead at the top of the standings means there’s a little wiggle room with the return fixtures of those tricky early-season games Juventus worked its way through.
A must-win fixture yet it doesn’t decide anything? Very, very interesting, Mr. Allegri...
Paulo Dybala is healthy. Andrea Barzagli is almost 100 percent healthy. Marko Pjaca is almost 100 percent healthy. Both Barzagli and Pjaca have been called up for the Roma game, too. This seems weird, but Juventus’ injury situation isn’t even close to as bad it was at this point in time a month ago.
The injuries are better, but there won’t be Leonardo Bonucci to score an amazing side-volley from just outside of the box against Roma this time around. Oh, well. I guess Daniele Rugani will just have to continue his goal-scoring binge. The man does have a new contract to mark, right?
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
1. What kind of role does Paulo Dybala play?
We know that Dybala is getting fitter and fitter by the day. He’s made two substitute appearances over the past week and has looked quite good in the process. (And no, I’m not talking about his good looking face this time.) The question is whether Max Allegri has deemed him ready enough to play from the start — something that is obviously going to happen sooner rather than later as the days and weeks go by and December moves on.
Allegri was understandably coy at his pre-match press conference as to whether it will be Dybala or Mario Mandzukic who will be partnering with Gonzalo Higuain against Roma on Saturday night. That’s no surprise. It’s not like Allegri was ever going to come out and declare that Dybala was going to start. That’s not what he does. It’s only a rare occasion that Max will actually tell us about the major decisions that he has in regards to his starting lineup. But based on what we’ve seen, Dybala is pretty damn close to being ready in terms of what he’s done on the field to in his two cameos since coming back from his long injury absence. Match fitness is obviously something Allegri knows better than us since he’s there at training, but there’s only one thing to do now — wait for the starting lineups to be released an hour before kickoff.
2. No matter who his strike partner is, can Gonzalo Higuain keep the good times rollin’?
As much as Dybala possibly returning to the starting lineup should have Roma worried, Higuain returning to form should be the No. 1 talking point for the Giallorossi entering Saturday night’s game. Higuain is really looking like the player who was such a force last season. He has ended that run of two goals in 10 appearances with three goals in his last two games. The biggest thing is that they are the kind of goals that we’ve seen Higuain score a lot of in the past. They’re the kind of goals — both in terms of the game they’ve come in and when in the game that they’ve happened — that pretty much prove why Juventus forked out €90 million for the big Argentine.
And what do you know, Juventus has quite an important game against Roma on Saturday night. Seems like the time for Higuain to show us once again why he’s one of the best there is, right?
3. Giorgio Chiellini and Daniele Rugani vs. Edin Dzeko.
We’ve talked about Juventus’ strikers, so now it’s only natural to talk about Roma’s top goal scorer, Mr. Dzeko himself. It certainly has been a tale of two seasons for the big Bosnian striker, as we discussed in the Q&A session with Bren on Friday. The struggles of last season are gone and now Dzeko, much more comfortable in both Roma’s system and the league he’s playing in, is one of the highest scoring strikers Serie A has to offer. He’s currently tied with Mauro Icardi for the league lead in goals with 12 and has four multi-goal games in his last 10 appearances. Something tells me that’s pretty good. Well, maybe because it is. As is the case with Higuain for Roma’s defense, if slowing down Dzeko isn’t one of Allegri’s biggest keys to success then there’s probably something wrong with how the defense is approaching the game. The good thing in all of this is that as well as Dzeko may be playing, the Rugani-Chiellini partnership has worked pretty damn well since Allegri switched to a four-man backline. They’re certainly going to be tested Saturday night, I don’t think there’s any denying that.
4. MIralem Pjanic playing against his former team for the first time.
As much as we just talked about Allegri not mentioning who’s in his starting lineup more often than not, the third-year Juve manager declared that Pjanic is going to be playing from the start when he takes on his former club for the first time on Saturday night. That’s not a surprise considering both how important the game is and how Pjanic has been playing as of late in his new role as Juventus’ trequartista. We saw just how effective he can be when Juventus absolutely crushed Atalanta, and he’s obviously going to be have the desire to show Roma what they’re missing on Saturday night. Like Higuain starting to round into form — no, that’s not a joke about his weight from earlier on this season, so just you stop your giggling right now, people — the performance Pjanic put forth against Atalanta is what Juventus expected to get when they forked over €32 million for the Bosnian midfielder over the summer. It was arguably his best in a Juventus shirt. It was one that I hope we get to see a lot of going forward as he settles into this more advanced role in Juve’s starting lineup.
So don’t feel like you have to take it easy on your former teammates, Mire. This is a big-time rivalry game for a reason, and one where we’re going to look for Juventus’ best players to be, well, at their best.
MY STARTING LINEUP
Juventus XI (4-3-1-2): Gianluigi Buffon; Stephan Lichtsteiner, Daniele Rugani, Giorgio Chiellini, Alex Sandro; Sami Khedira, Claudio Marchisio, Mario Lemina; Miralem Pjanic; Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala
Location: Juventus Stadium, Turin, Italy
Kick-off time: 8:45 p.m. local time in Italy; 7:45 p.m. in England; 2:45 p.m. on the East Coast; 11:45 a.m. on the West Coast
TV: beIN SPORTS USA (United States); beIN Sports Canada (Canada); BT Sport 3 (United Kingdom); Sky Sport 1 HD Italia, Sky Calcio 1, Sky Supercalcio HD, Roma TV (Italy)
Online: fuboTV, beIN SPORTS CONNECT U.S.A. (United States); fuboTV Canada, beIN SPORTS CONNECT Canada (Canada); BT Sport Live Streaming (United Kingdom); SKY Go Italia (Italy)
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