Over the next three-and-a-half weeks, Juventus has seven games on its schedule. We will cover all three fronts and competitions — Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League. And of those seven games, Juventus will see Atalanta in three of them.
So, I sure hope you like facing teams with black and blue jerseys. (Well, teams in neraazzurro not named “Inter,” that is.)
Tuesday night marks the first of those three meetings with Juventus and their friends from Bergamo. And this time it’s in the Coppa Italia, as the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia will host the first leg of the two-legged semifinal between Juventus and Atalanta.
The game will mark the beginning of a huge month’s worth of game for Juventus. They will continue their head-to-head battle with Napoli for first place in the Serie A table. They will have played the first of their two legs against Tottenham in the Champions League Round of 16. And there will be the continuation of the latest Coppa Italia title defense, with the second leg against Atalanta coming on the final day of February. (That game will be all of three days after Juve face Atalanta in Serie A, so get used to seeing those names and numbers, my friends.)
What should we look out for on Tuesday night? Here are a few things...
1) The triumphant return of Gianluigi Buffon
San Gigi spent his final day as a 39-year-old man sitting on Juve’s bench while reading a birthday card from youngsters in the crowd, seeing the crowd at the Bentegodi unfurl a massive banner in admiration and then see his club play out a terribly boring win over Chievo.
Let’s hope his second day in his 40s are better than his final few hours in his 30s.
As Max Allegri announced at his pre-match press conference on Friday before the Chievo game, Juventus’ Coppa Italia fixture against Atalanta will be the game where Buffon makes his long-awaited return to the starting lineup. It has been nearly two months since Buffon last started in between the sticks and wore Juve’s captain’s armband.
It’s not like Juve have slipped defensively in Buffon’s absence. They’ve allowed all of one goal since that 1-0 win over Napoli on the first day of December. And, better yet, Wojciech Szczesny has been absolutely fantastic in goal as he filled Buffon’s incredibly important shoes at the back.
But dammit, it will be nice to have Gigi back and healthy again. He’s 40 now, and we’re not going to be able to watch him for that much longer. Even if it’s the Coppa Italia — seriously, somebody tell me the last time Buffon played in a Coppa Italia game — seeing the G.O.A.T. in the starting lineup is just something we’re accustomed to around these parts.
2) What role is Federico Bernardeschi going to play?
Ah, our almost-weekly wonderment about what kind of playing time Fede is going to get in the next game Juventus has on the schedule.
At this point, I have no idea what to think. In games where I think that Bernardeschi would be a good pick to be in the starting lineup, he ends up starting on the bench instead. In games where I don’t expect him to play at all, he either gets a good chunk of time or — gasp! — is even in the starting lineup.
There are players on this Juve roster where you know what their role is.
I don’t know if Bernardeschi’s role has even been identified.
That’s why it’s tough to say that he’ll play in the Coppa Italia. Sure, he’s started other games in the competition this season, which could serve as some kind of hint for us when it comes to trying to predict which way Allegri will go with his lineup. But, at the same time, I have no idea if previous Coppa Italia games will be the table setter for this next one.
3) Just how many starters will Max Allegri actually give customary Coppa Italia rest to on Tuesday night?
In his pre-match press conference, Allegri sat there and emphasized the fact that Juve need to come out and get themselves some goals seeing as they’re playing in Bergamo.
What does that make me think?
We’re going to be seeing a pretty full-strength starting lineup being thrown out there.
That means Gonzalo Higuain. That means Mario Mandzukic. That means Miralem Pjanic, Sami Khedira and Blaise Matuidi. That means Giorgio Chiellini and Alex Sandro, too.
At this point in the Coppa Italia, the obvious rotation aspect of starting lineup selection isn’t going to be as prevalent as it is in earlier stages of the competition.
You never know, though, people. With all of the possibilities of Allegri fielding a usual starting lineup, there’s always the possibility that we might even get to see this young man play, too...
4) Mattia Caldara going up against his future teammates.
Leonardo Spinazzola is injured and isn’t even called up for Tuesday night’s game. Riccardo Orsolini has been basically relegated to the bench as the midway point of the season has come and gone, which means the likelihood of him starting against the club that owns his contract is basically slim to none.
That means only one Juventus-owned player at Atalanta is likely to start.
His name is Mattia Caldara.
And he’s really, really good already.
It’s always fun to see Juve-owned prospects go up against their (potentially) future club mainly because you know they want to impress. But sometimes that means there’s so much pressure to impress that they basically fall flat on their face and don’t do much of anything at all against Juventus.
Caldara, such a cool customer, isn’t part of that group.
I don’t think anybody expects Caldara to be playing anywhere other than in Turin come the start of next season. He’s proven over the past 12 months since Juventus bought him from Atalanta that he’s about as ready for the jump up to the big time as maybe any other player his age currently in Serie A.
And when he gets to show that against Juventus, well then it’s even that much more enjoyable to watch. (Which probably sounds odd to some seeing as we want Juventus to score goals and Caldara’s main goal is to prevent Juve from doing anything offensively.)
MY STARTING LINEUP
Juventus XI (4-3-3): Gianluigi Buffon; Mattia de Scigilio, Daniele Rugani, Giorgio Chiellini, Alex Sandro; Rodrigo Bentancur, Miralem Pjanic, Blaise Matuidi; Federico Bernardeschi, Mario Mandzukic, Douglas Costa
Location: Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia, Bergamo, Italy
Kickoff time: 8:45 p.m. local time in Italy; 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: GOLTV USA, GolTV Espanol (United States); SKY GO Extra, NOW TV UK, Sky Sports Red Button, Sky Sports Mix (United Kingdom); RAI Uno (Italy)
Online/Mobile: fuboTV (United States); Sky Go UK (United Kingdom); RAI Play (Italy)
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