When Juventus were drawn against Bayern Munich, the reaction was relatively positive even though the German giants were in the middle of steamrolling through their opposition in the Bundesliga. That was in the middle of December and things have obviously happened over the span of two months. Some have been for the better, like Juventus rising to the top of the table for the first time all season. Some not so good like all those freakin' injuries not going away.
After two months of thinking "Yeah, well I hope Juventus can keep this good run of form going when Bayern Munich comes to town!" the day has actually arrived. Well, almost arrived. There's less than 24 hours to go before the Champions League anthem is heard over the sound system at Juventus Stadium. That beautiful, beautiful thing that signifies Juventus are still playing in Europe's premier club competition.
That day, it is here. Oh yes, it is here.
Gigi Buffon said Juventus-Bayern is the kind of matchup you expect to see in the semifinals of the Champions League, not in the first stage of the knockout rounds. Max Allegri, despite how well Juve's defense is playing these days, said he's expecting some goals to be scored. (Remember, he said the same thing before Juve played Real Madrid in the semis last season and he wasn't wrong.) Even with important players missing out on both sides, this is still a pair of heavyweights facing one another with quite a bit riding on it.
Does Juventus have a better chance of beating Bayern than they did in 2013? Different teams, (some) different players and different location of the first leg. There's no denying how good Juve are in front of their hometown fans. And there's no denying that to beat — or even stay even — with a team that is as good as Bayern, Juve has to be on top of its game. Defense, midfield, attack. Three areas working as one unit. You know, what they've done a lot of during the 16-game unbeaten run in league play.
As much as last season's run to the Champions League final was a message out to the rest of Europe that Juventus is back amongst the big boys, this is the same kind of deal. Bayern are one of the favorites to win the whole thing, and with Pep Guardiola heading to Manchester City come this summer, you know his squad wants to send him out with a bang.
Juventus' goal is to prevent that from happening. And running with Bayern would certainly add to the fact that this current Juventus isn't the one that frustrated the living hell out of us at the beginning of the season.
They are in first place in Serie A after all, folks. (Thanks for the assist on that one, Milan.)
That's confidence, but not too much of it. Juve players and coaches alike know how dangerous of a team Bayern is even with their current injury situation. But you know what? The team we root for is pretty good, too.
Bayern's defense is all kinds of a hot mess right now.
As we posted about earlier Monday, both Giorgio Chiellini and Alex Sandro won't be taking part in Tuesday's match. The good thing is that those are the only two major absentees for the first leg against Bayern.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
1. Can Juventus' defense replicate its Napoli success against an even higher-powered team like Bayern?
All the talk entering the top-of-the-table showdown couldn't avoid mentioning how good of a season Gonzalo Higuain was having. As it turned out, the man who has more league goals than anybody in Europe didn't do much of anything against a Juventus defense that is putting up shutout after shutout in Serie A these days. Now, while Bayern's defense may be littered with injuries all around, the same can't be said about Pep Guardiola's options on the other end of the field. Robert Lewandowski's goal scoring numbers rival what Higuain has done this season. Douglas Costa is living up to the lofty transfer fee Bayern shelled out for him over the summer and Thomas Muller is always going to be an absolute threat wherever he is on the field. There's a lot of different things that will have to go right for Juve to keep Bayern off the scoreboard Tuesday night, but with the way their defense is playing, there's no better time than now to try and do that.
2. Paulo Dybala on the European stage.
Last season we saw Álvaro Morata essentially stamp his place in the starting lineup thanks to his goal-scoring record in Europe. Now, who knows if Juventus are going to make the a run to the Champions League final again simply because there's such a long way to go to get there, but the one thing Dybala still hasn't done in a Juventus jersey is bag himself a goal in Europe. Some of that was out of his control early in the group stage seeing as his playing time was extremely limited. But Dybala is a focal point of this Juventus team now, and that means the expectation of him producing like it. I'm not saying that he needs to go out there and score a hat trick — although, if he wants to do that, I won't object to it at all — but the onus on Dybala to produce is now there. I don't think that's breaking news to anybody, though.
3. Mario Mandzukic's return to the starting lineup.
This is a huge boost for Juventus for two simple reasons.
For one, The Mandzukic-Dybala partnership has clearly been Juve's best tandem up front this season. They play off each other so well, and about the time that they started to click up front is when Juventus started to pick up wins consistently. Secondly, you look at the size of Bayern's available defenders, you look at Mandzukic's 6-foot-2 frame and his ability in the air, and then you have to like that aspect going into Tuesday night's game. Just think about how well Mandzukic was playing going into his almost month. Then think about a Bayern defense that is nothing close to being at full strength. If Juve were ever going to have an edge over Bayern, this could very well be it.
4. Arturo Vidal's return to Juventus Stadium.
Yes, it's a little different than that of Kingsley Coman, sorry folks. For nearly his entire time in Turin, Vidal was one of Juventus' best and most beloved players. He was the physical representation of what we wanted Juventus to be — hard-nosed, never-say-die kind of attitude, and damn good at what he does for a living. But this summer say the Vidal-Juventus marriage come to an end. And hey, that has proven to be something that hasn't hindered the four-time defending Serie A champions too much. I've said it once, and I'll say it again: I do hope that Vidal gets a warm reception from the Juventus Stadium crowd. And, as I've with other former players who come back to Turin for the first time, I hope they just so happen to have a well-timed off game. It's nothing personal, Arturo, but you play for the opposition now.
My starting lineup
Juventus XI (4-4-2): Gianluigi Buffon; Stephan Lichtsteiner, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, Patrice Evra; Juan Cuadrado, Sami Khedira, Claudio Marchisio, Paul Pogba; Paulo Dybala, Mario Mandzukic
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