At its onset, figuring out Juventus in the Champions League group stage can be a tricky prospect. They can look average one game, not-so-average the next and at the same time be atop the group with some kind of not-so-bad margin when all six games are all said and done. It happens. There’s no avoiding it. Group Stage Juventus is the weirdest kind of Juventus, one that will forever leave you scratching your head and screaming obscenities at the top of your lungs are the same time.
The knockout rounds can be different. Juventus has been in this kind of situation before during Max Allegri’s previous two seasons in charge. They’ve had aggregate leads. They’ve defended most of them. And thanks to a 2-0 aggregate lead — and with two goals on top of that — they acquired thanks to Marko Pjaca and Dani Alves in Portugal a couple of weeks ago, Juve head into the second leg against Porto in control.
Many feel like Juventus already have one foot in the Champions League quarterfinals. That’s grand. That’s good. But we know not all aggregate leads in the Champions League are made the same. We could go ahead and as a certain young Italian midfielder currently playing in Paris who a lot of us want to sign with Juventus this summer all about that.
But as much as we can worry about Juventus giving up a goal and making our collective lives a lot more stressful, I wouldn’t want Juve to be in any other position. (A couple more away goals would be nice, but that’s just me being greedy.) Juventus are in good shape. They’ve got the 2-0 aggregate lead. They’re playing the second leg at home. And that home stadium has been a place where they’ve just racked up win after win after win after win over ever since it opened its doors.
The next 90 minutes — and yes, we hope it ends at 90 plus a couple of ticks for stoppage time — are hopefully just the next step in what has been a season in which Juventus has stated it wants to make serious damage in the Champions League.
There’s only one way to ensure you have a chance to play for the Champions League trophy — continue to win. Juventus did that in the first leg, and now we get to see what happens when Europe’s best club competition returns to Turin.
Juventus has a 2-0 aggregate lead. That’s good!
If this game was being played in Portugal and not Turin, then there might be some bad news. But other than the fact that Juve could cough up a 2-0 lead and see this thing go to extra time, I’m not so sure there’s much bad news before the game kicks off.
Feel free to check back with me around 2:45 p.m. Pacific Time and I’ll update this part.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
1. How Max Allegri plays it.
Mr. Francesco already stated his case as to how Juventus should play things when Porto comes to town. And, you know what? He ain’t wrong.
This is where the big question hangs over everybody’s head: Does Allegri play it somewhat conservatively and sit on his team’s 2-0 aggregate lead? Or does Allegri have his team push forward in the first half and try to kill off the second leg barely after it starts?
Juve has wiggle room because of the two away goals, but they shouldn’t be thinking that they can play things relatively cooly because of it. The last thing Juventus need to see happen is to have Porto heading into the second half with plenty of hope and momentum on top of it. Nobody expects Tuesday night’s second leg to be a piece of cake. Porto may not be the caliber of a Barcelona trying to flip an opening-leg loss, but they’ve still got talent on their side and the ability to score a goal or two to put this game into no man’s land. As much as I trust Juve’s defense since the shift to the four-man backline, messing around with a two-goal lead could result in major issues for Juventus as Tuesday night’s game goes on.
Basically, as Francesco said a few days ago, you go for the kill, you’re less likely to get burned by the opposition. I know telling Italians to not sit back is tough, but hey, sometimes you just gotta go against the norm.
2. Is Mario Mandzukic healthy and back to being Mario Mandzukic?
Seeing as I had a work obligation during the Milan game, color me a little surprised to find out that Mr. No Good’s stomach was no good
As we know, Mandzukic’s game is not just scoring goals or holding up play. It’s the work rate, the hustle, the defending that makes him such a valuable contributor even though he’s not a natural left winger — which makes it understandable as to why an upset stomach would prevent him from feeling up to running his socks off for 75 to 90 minutes. Nothing at Allegri’s pre-match press conference indicated that Mandzukic won’t play. That’s the key part in things, I guess. That’s good, because so much of Mandzukic’s impact on the field isn’t just being part of a high-powered front four.
And with how much Mandzukic had played before he missed Friday night’s game against Milan, maybe the rest will have done him some good. Out of all the players who have been regulars since Allegri went with the 4-2-3-1, very few have played more than Mandzukic. Maybe the stomach ailment will prove to be the rest that he needed to recharge his batteries. We all know that he’s going to work his ass off regardless. So why not have a little extra oomph after an unplanned rest to go with it?
3. Is Giorgio Chiellini healthy enough to play?
Or, better yet, this should be something like “Is Giorgio Chiellini close enough to full fitness where he will rush himself back into the starting lineup?”
Okay, so that last sentence is based on past experiences where Chiellini has rushed back from a muscle strain or something along those lines and then subsequently re-injured himself as a result. You can’t blame a guy. It’s only been this way for the last couple of years, you know. It’s impossible to not think that.
But when it comes to Chiellini’s health, it’s important — very, very important. It’s important because in a game like this, you want your best defenders in the game. And when it comes to Juventus’ best defenders, Chiellini has been up there this season rather than being as up and down as his health status. Not that the players who would step in for him are slouches. I’m cool with Andrea Barzagli playing. Same goes for Medhi Benatia or — gasp! — even Daniele Rugani. That’s not really the issue. It’s the fact that Chiellini has a history of rushing back and being in the lineup when he probably shouldn’t have been.
Allegri says he still needs to evaluate Chiellini’s status for Tuesday night’s game. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be saying that. When it comes to racing to obtain match fitness, Chiellini is probably the crystal-clear definition of it right now.
4. Stephan Lichtsteiner or Dani Alves?
There are very few squad questions to debate if Allegri does go with a 4-2-3-1 like everybody and their mom expects him to use. It’s not like Gigi Buffon isn’t going to be starting in goal or Gonzalo Higuain isn’t going to spearhead Juve’s dangerous four-man attack. Those things are simple. Those are easy lineup decisions.
When it comes to who’s going to be playing at right back, there’s a little bit of a different situation. Was Lichtsteiner rested over the weekend with Porto in mind? Will Dani Alves drop back into defense after a game as a advanced winger against Milan? For all we know, which right back plays might indicate how Allegri wants to play the game. As much as Lichtsteiner loves to get forward, he’s nowhere near the offensive contributor that Alves is. That’s pretty much undeniable at this point.
Allegri said right back and one of the center backs are the two positions in defense in which he still hadn’t made up his mind as of Monday. Now we get to see whether Juve’ South American contingent will be one more stronger or if every referee at Juventus Stadium will need earplugs because Lichtsteiner is bound to yell at them the first tim he touches the ball. What fun there could be!
MY STARTING LINEUP
Juventus XI (4-2-3-1): Gianluigi Buffon; Stephan Lichtsteiner, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, Alex Sandro; Claudio Marchisio, Miralem Pjanic; Juan Cuadrado, Paulo Dybala, Mario Mandzukic; Gonzalo Higuain
Location: Juventus Stadium, Turin, Italy
Kick-off time: 8:45 p.m. local time in Italy; 7:45 p.m. in the United Kingdom; 3:45 p.m. on the East Coast; 12:45 p.m. on the West Coast
TV: Fox Sports 2 (United States); TSN3, TSN4 (Canada); BT Sport 3 (United Kingdom); PremiumSport HD (Italy)
Online: WatchESPN, Fox Soccer 2GO USA, Fox Sports GO (United States); TSN GO (Canada); BT Sport Live Streaming (United Kingdom); Sky Go Italia (Italy)
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