It’s funny to sit here with three Champions League group stage games still in front of us and say that Juventus has the chance to wrap up a spot in the knockout rounds with a win over Sporting on Tuesday night. That is, however, exactly what is happening.
For all of the frustration this European campaign started with against Barcelona. With the subsequent grind-it-out kinds of wins over Olympiacos and Sporting, Juve has separated itself from the bottom half of Group D. A win over Sporting in Portugal on Tuesday night would mean that the gap between themselves and their Portuguese opposition is six points with two group stage games to go and a much better goal differential to boot.
It’s that simple.
But when we talk about “simple” in the Champions League, it’s not really Juventus’ kind of deal, Daddy-O.
The bright spot in all of this is the fact that Juve can guarantee Champions League football in early 2018 with a win and that they’re coming off arguably their best showing of the season just a few days earlier. Juventus absolutely grinded through the first two months of the season both domestically and in Europe, with wins not necessarily dictating the overall product that they were putting out there on a weekly basis.
To build off Saturday’s 2-0 win over Milan AND book a ticket to the knockout round, well, that would be a sign that this team is going in the right direction.
As much as the wins help, I think it’s pretty safe to say that we also want to see Juventus starting to playing well, too. There’s only so many grinding wins that people can take before the form of the team really starts to become an issue. And while there’s things to like about this season, the most recent showing that Juve have laid out there is probably the prettiest and most efficient performance of them all.
Basically what I’m trying to say is that if Juventus can play anything like they did against Milan going forward starting with Tuesday night’s game with Sporting, then good times are about to be had.
That sure would be nice — especially with some of the meh games Juve have had in the first two months of the season.
Also pretty nice? Booking your ticket to the Champions League knockout round with a couple of games to spare. That would mean Juve’s just playing for the top spot in the group when Barcelona come to Turin in a few weeks, not their future in Europe’s premier club competition this season.
Juventus played well on Saturday. I like when Juventus go out and play well.
A negative result and things get a little too interesting for my liking.
Let’s just not go there, okay, Juventus?
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
1) Can Gonzalo Higuain keep the good times rolling?
The month of October has been really good to Gonzalo Higuain. Not only because he’s started scoring goals on a consistent basis again, but his overall form has looked much, much better than what we saw during Juve’s batch of games in September.
Higuain’s brace against Milan over the weekend was about as Higuain as it could get. His finishing was pure perfection, his decisiveness there from the get-go. That’s the kind of
Now, as is usually the case when Higuain starts to get things rolling, we wait for him to transfer Serie A success over to the Champions League.
We know that he’s the kind of striker that can put a team on his back and carry them to win after win when he finds his top scoring form. I’m not going to say he’s there just yet, but the brace over the weekend was something that made me think the best of Higuain is getting closer and closer to showing itself again.
His goal against Olympiacos, the one that kicked off this month’s worth of quality performances, was decisive. His goal(s) against Milan pretty much ensured Juve got three points at the San Siro over the weekend.
As much as Paulo Dybala scoring goals can be very, very fun, the same can be said when Higuain gets things going and really starts to hit top form. He’s showing signs of getting there, and another really good showing against Sporting will be the next step in that process.
2) Does Daniele Rugani get to play in Europe?
I was chatting with one of our intrepid writers, Mr. Sam Lopresti, about this very topic following the win against Milan over the weekend. The crux of the discussion was if Rugani playing three straight games means that he’s finally in Allegri’s good graces and we can now stop worrying on a game-by-game basis what the starting defense is going to look like.
The good part of the conversation: Both of us obviously want Rugani to be in the starting lineup.
The bad part of the conversation: There’s the obvious worry that Allegri will pull something along the lines of “Daniele has played three straight games, twice in less than a week and there might be too much pressure in Europe, so this would be a good time for a night off.”
See? We’ve been infected by all of the possibilities now.
The thing is, we can’t point to a European game in which Rugani has played in this season. We’d have to go all the way back to last season for that. (Unless you’re counting the World Cup qualifier he appeared in during the last international break, of course.)
Now, I know my line of thinking in the last match preview was that Andrea Barzagli would start alongside Giorgio Chiellini because the latter had just returned from injury and Rugani’s place in the lineup would likely disappear because of it. But the fact that Rugani did get the start against Milan, which is surely a big game rather than facing a relegation battler like SPAL a few days earlier, has thrown my whole attempted predictive process all out of whack. So thanks for that one, Max.
But I think it’s becoming more obvious by the game that the Rugani-Chiellini combination in the center of defense is Juve’s top option right now and going forward. That’s not only because Rugani is good now, but he’s shown that with consistent playing time he tends to really start to play his best games.
Funny how that works out...
3) So, just like last time around against Sporting, who the hell is going to play right back?
The thing that’s different from a few weeks ago is that there’s actually a natural right back available for selection. The problem is, said natural right back, Mattia De Sciglio, just returned to the squad after nearly two months on the sidelines due to injury.
So, it’s basically a choice between De Sciglio, Stefano Sturaro and Andrea Barzagli at right back, right?
But then we got thrown this little curveball at Max’s pre-match press conference...
We’ve seen Johnny Square at right wingback before. But RIGHT BACK? I don’t know what to really think about this. So, if Max says it’s an option, I guess we got to think of it as one.
Cuadrado playing right back is certainly something that I’m sure Allegri wants to experiment with considering his other options at the position entering the return fixture against Sporting.
But is the time with a spot in the knockout round on the line — with two games to spare, too — really the time to experiment with Cuadrado at a new position?
I guess we could have said the same with Sturaro playing there last time around against Sporting, and it’s not like that turned out to be a total disaster. But now there are choices and decisions to be made more than ever before. It’s easy to figure out who’s playing there when there’s two guys available. When there’s four, including a recently-returned De Sciglio and a right winger maybe playing right back like Cuadrado?
I guess there’s more than one spot in defense when the starting lineup comes out that will be interesting to see come an hour before kickoff on Tuesday night.
MY STARTING XI
Juventus XI (4-2-3-1): Gianluigi Buffon; Mattia De Sciglio, Daniele Rugani, Giorgio Chiellini, Alex Sandro; Miralem Pjanic, Blaise Matuidi; Federico Bernardeschi, Paulo Dybala, Mario Mandzukic; Gonzalo Higuain
Location: Estádio José Alvalade, Lisbon, Portugal
Kickoff time: 8:45 p.m. local time in Italy; 7:45 p.m. local time in Portugal; 7:45 p.m. in the United Kingdom; 2:45 p.m. on the East Coast; 11:45 a.m. on the West Coast
TV: TSN5 (Canada); BT Sport Extra (United Kingdom); PremiumSport HD (Italy)
Online/Mobile: WatchESPN, FOX Soccer Match Pass, ESPN3 USA, Fox Soccer Plus (United States) TSN GO (Canada); Premium Play (Italy)
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