When Juventus came out of the first international break last September, we were all sitting here, twiddling our thumbs and wondering if the squad was going to kick what was an awful start to the season. It didn’t get much better — outside of that lovely Champions League-opening win over Manchester City — as September turned into October, with the low point coming on a rainy night at the Mapei Stadium against Sassuolo.
Conveniently, as Juventus start this season in a completely different kind of fashion as the previous one, Sassuolo is the next team up on the fixture list for the five-time defending Serie A champions.
It’s much earlier this season than in the previous one, but the first meeting between Juventus and Juventus Junior. This game, up until the middle of last week, was a matchup of two unbeatens, two teams starting the 2016-17 season pretty darn well. Now, because Sassuolo was ruled to have used an ineligible player in what was originally a 2-1 win over Pescara, the first post-international break Serie A game in September is third place against...14th. Not exactly the same kind of luster as it might have had if sole first place, even for a couple of hours, was the reward for the victor.
Sassuolo manager Eusebio Di Francesco, credited for turning this club into one that is now in Europe after being promoted just a few seasons earlier, has told his team to dream as they make their annual trip to Juventus Stadium.
In turn, Juventus manager Max Allegri hasn’t changed his tune from other post-international break restarts as Champions League football is on the horizon. As much as some want to think about four days down the road as another team rolls into Turin, Allegri wants to keep things in the now. He’s a smart man — something most of you already know.
.@OfficialAllegri: "@SassuoloUS has always been a tough opponent in recent years and need to be taken very seriously." #JuveSassuolo— JuventusFC (@juventusfcen) September 9, 2016
Well, yeah. Sassuolo was one of the most recent really, really bad moments this Juventus team has had. It start something truly special, but we’re still less than a calendar year from what happened the first time Juventus and Sassuolo played last season. That was bad. I hope what happens at Juventus Stadium on Saturday evening is a little bit better. Or a lot better. Whatever you all want as long as Juve doesn’t make us want to pull our hair out or throw things across the living room like last October.
Juventus point total after two games in the 2015-16 season: Zero
Juventus point total after two games in the 2016-17 season: Six
THIS SEASON IS SIX TIMES BETTER THAN LAST SEASON ALREADY.
In case you wanted to see Domenico Berardi and his red-hot form play against the best team in Italy, well it looks like you’re going to have to wait until later in the season for that to happen. More on this down the page.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
1. Is this the game where Gonzalo Higuain makes his first Juventus start?
We have a question for Max Allegri, and Max Allegri has somewhat of an answer...
.@OfficialAllegri: "@G_Higuain will likely feature in #JuveSassuolo. @Cuadrado ought to be available tomorrow."— JuventusFC (@juventusfcen) September 9, 2016
Ah, yes. If that “likely” is about as big of a hint as we can get from Allegri without him coming out and declaring Higuain will start against Sassuolo, I don’t know what is. This is important not just because it’s Juve’s €90 million man getting his first official start for the club, but also the first chance we get to see Higuain and Paulo Dybala start alongside one another from the opening whistle. Something tells me there will be a few extra Argentina flags at the stadium on Saturday because of that, it’s just a hunch I’ve got. But the fact still remains that two of Juventus’ most important players, both strikers, both Argentinians, are going to be giving us the first glimpse of what they can do for potentially 90 minutes, not just a relatively short period of time in the second half of a game. Higuain and Dybala has potential for so much fun up front. Let us see that — and then some — against Sassuolo. I don’t ask for too much, do I?
2. Is this the game where Miralem Pjanic makes his debut?
The Italian press seems to think so, and I am totally okay with that. Considering that Pjanic — who has yet to see a minute in Serie A this season — played in Bosnia’s setup during the recently-completed international break, something tells me he’s feeling pretty good when it comes to his physical standing. Now, Allegri may well choose to not push things with a European contest four days away. Or maybe Allegri will deem that having what will basically be four days of rest between games is something that Pjanic will be able to handle despite his lack of league minutes so far this season. Either way, whether he plays Saturday or Wednesday, it seems as though we’re close to seeing Pjanic at the heart of Juventus’ midfield. That’s a good thing. Pjanic, Dybala and Higuain all in one lineup? Throw in an in-form Sami Khedira? That’s starting to look like a pretty damn good lineup, if you ask me.
3. With no Domenico Berardi, where will Sassuolo’s goals come from?
Surprise, surprise! The player that we all want to see join Juventus won’t be playing against Juventus this weekend. It’s no kind of newfound phenomenon that Berardi, who we thought would be a Juventus player by now, is missing Sassuolo’s game against Juve. It happened during his first year in Serie A. It happened last year. And it’s happening again this year. It’s especially significant this time around considering just how absolutely on fire the 22-year-old Berardi has started the season. How good? Well, Berardi has played in six games this season between Serie A and Europa League qualifiers, he’s scored seven goals. Something tells me that’s pretty good folks, but I can’t really put my finger on it.
Okay, fine, enough deadpanning here. Considering both Berardi and Gregoire Defrel aren’t making the trip to Turin, Sassuolo’s goal threats have taken just that much of a hit. That’s good, at least on paper, considering that Juventus’ defense is pretty good. But you know Sassuolo will try and find some answer because that’s just the kind of club they are. Maybe it will be this guy?
Oh, man. I love Ale Matri as much as anybody around these parts, but please, let’s not have any kind of Ex Effect shenanigans going on this weekend, okay, Serie A gods?
4. Will anybody actually get rest before Wednesday’s Champions League opener?
Well, considering that Allegri has given key players a day off following their respective international duty responsibilities in years past, it wouldn’t be the most surprising thing to have happen. He also pretty much confirmed it at his pre-match press conference on Friday.
.@OfficialAllegri: "@DaniAlvesD2 and @andreabarzagli2 will not be featuring in #JuveSassuolo."— JuventusFC (@juventusfcen) September 9, 2016
So, I guess the new question for this section becomes “Will anybody besides Andrea Barzagli get rest before Wednesday’s Champions League opener?” or “Who should step into the lineup for Andrea Barzagli and Dani Alves who are getting rest before Wednesday’s Champions League opener?” I think we all know the natural substitute for Alves. He’s Swiss and has been known to scream at a ref or two during his time as a Juventus player. The decision on who steps in for Barzagli — or any other defender that Allegri may want to rest — may be a little more difficult. Medhi Benatia was really, really good in his official Juventus debut against Lazio. Daniele Rugani also hasn’t played this season, so this could be a logical spot for him to get some minutes with a big European opener on the horizon. This, above all else, is the luxury that Allegri has. He’s got options wherever he looks on the field. It’s a pretty nice problem to have.
MY STARTING LINEUP
Juventus XI (3-5-2): Gianluigi Buffon; Medhi Benatia, Leonardo Bonucci, Daniele Rugani; Stephan Lichtsteiner, Sami Khedira, Miralem Pjanic, Kwadwo Asamoah, Alex Sandro; Mario Mandzukic, Paulo Dybala
Location: Juventus Stadium, Turin, Italy
Kick-off time: 6 p.m. local time in Italy; 5 p.m. in England; 12 noon on the East Coast; 9 a.m. on the West Coast
TV: beIN SPORTS USA, RAI International (United States); beIN Sports Canada, RAI International (Canada); BT Sport ESPN (United Kingdom); Sky Supercalcio HD (Italy)
Online: beIN SPORTS CONNECT U.S.A., fuboTV (United States); beIN SPORTS CONNECT Canada, fuboTV Canada (Canada); BT Sport Live Streaming (United Kingdom); SKY Go Italia (Italy)
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