The difference in tone and narrative between the first time Juventus and Manchester United played one another in the Champions League group stage is obvious.
The first time around two weeks ago, it was all about Cristiano Ronaldo making his return to Old Trafford and all the ambiance that was going to come along with it. You know, the former United star coming back to where he made his name with his new team that he’s expected to lead to European glory. Sure, Man United’s early-season struggles and the future of Jose Mourinho were a talking point, too, but Juve’s arrival in Manchester was centered around Ronaldo and his trip back to the Theatre of Dreams.
As the second half of the back-to-back group stage fixtures heads to Turin, there is only one thing that matters: Juventus having the chance to become one of the first clubs to secure their spot in the Champions League knockout rounds.
Now, that’s very un-Juve-like based on how the last handful of years have gone in the group stage. I know, it’s hard to believe, but this is about as true of a sentence as I’ve ever written here: Juventus need all of one point to clinch their spot in the Round of 16. Three points and Group H is basically won with two whole games to spare.
That’s something that would be a welcome change.
But it’s also something that should be done.
Look, Jose Mourinho can say that Wednesday night’s game against Juventus isn’t the most important one when it comes to his team’s Champions League campaign — and he’s not totally wrong. But, as much as I don’t expect United to roll over and basically give Juventus the points they need to seal their spot in the Round of 16, it’s just the usual Mourinho mind games that we’ve become accustom to over the years. He’s been like that at Inter, at Chelsea (both times), at Real Madrid and so on and son on.
It’s simple for Juventus: You win, you get a draw, you’re in.
It doesn’t matter who’s injured or who’s in the starting lineup, get the point (or three) and one of those precious 16 spots where you’re playing Champions League football come the start of the new year belongs to you.
That’s what this game is all about. It’s not about Paul Pogba’s return to Turin or the fact that United are likely going to go into the final pair of group stage fixtures in a position Juventus are very much familiar with heading to the final 180 minutes worth of games.
Juventus wins, they’re in.
Juventus doesn’t lose, they’re in.
I can’t really put it any simpler than that. That’s all you really need to do.
(But we will say more downpage.)
I want to remind you just how well Juventus played during the first 45-50 minutes against Manchester United two weeks ago. That was some of the best football Juve have played all of this season, if not dating back the last season or two.
Injuries. Freakin’ injuries.
1) Rodrigo Bentancur’s ever-improving game
Midway through the first half of the first game against Manchester United, this tweet popped up on my Twitter timeline:
I'm watching Ronaldo, you're watching Ronaldo, but Rodrigo Bentancur is running this game.— Rory Smith (@RorySmith) October 23, 2018
As a Bentancur fanboy, of course it caught my eye because why wouldn’t it. This was one of Juve’s youngest — and most naturally-talented — players making his mark in a game where so many eyes were already drawn to it. Ronaldo might have brought them there, but Bentancur was jumping off the page like it was a damn pop-up book and you just opened to the first surprise page.
Two weeks ago, Juventus had three midfielders available.
Now, they have four as Sami Khedira has officially come back from injury (although hasn’t seen the field yet after being called up for the first time in a long time for last Saturday’s game against Cagliari). Many are tipping Khedira to make his return to the starting lineup Wednesday night since Blaise Matuidi has been battling a hip injury
But the consensus is that Bentancur will, again, be a part of Juventus’ starting lineup.
And if it goes anything like how the young Uruguayan played in the first half at Old Trafford, then this Bentancur fanboy is going to be fawning over his potential for what seems like the 100th game in a row. (For the record: I’m not going to be ashamed one bit if that does actually happen.)
2) Dealing with the injuries
I didn’t feel like changing around the order at the last minute since I’ve done plenty of pre-writing before Monday’s word that 1,000 Juventus players are currently injured, so what is probably the No. 1 concern on a lot of folks’ minds.
Allegri won’t be forced to get creative in the grand scheme of things. He’s not going to have to put a defender in the midfield or out on the wing like he’s had to do in previous years when Juventus were dealing with a large number of injuries.
But, the thing is this: Who knows how many minutes somebody like Mario Mandzukic can handle. Who knows how many minutes Blaise Matuidi can play. Who knows if the injury Joao Cancelo suffered in training two days ago will linger and not provide him with the same explosiveness going forward that we’ve seen from him the first 2 1⁄2 months of the season. (More on that one in a bit.)
No matter what, though, we know there’s no Douglas Costa and Federico Bernardeschi for Allegri to pick from in attack, meaning it’s probably going to be a Ronaldo-Dybala-Cuadrado trident up front when we see the starting lineup announced an hour before kickoff.
That’s not ideal, but as we sat here a couple of days ago and saw that the number of injured players was quickly approaching double digits, it could have been a lot, a lot worse.
3) Joao Cancelo coming off an injury
I don’t think I’m doing on any kind of limb when I say that Cancelo has been one of Juventus’ best players so far this season. And if he hasn’t been in the group of the top Juve players, then we’re going to have to re-evaluate a couple of things.
But, as previously mentioned, Cancelo was part of that group that started the week out on the injury list. Even with that, he was like a good number of those players who were on the injury list to begin the week and included in Juve’s match day squad for the showdown iwth Manchester United.
As I said once, I will say it again: Joao, how much you got?
Cancelo’s injury was described as “a slight muscle strain on the left thigh flexor” on Monday, which makes you wonder just how much something like that can linger knowing that muscle injuries seem to be the bane of Juve’s injury-related existence. For all we know Cancelo is all good and he’ll be bombing up and down the right wing just like he’s done in his first handful of appearances in a Juventus jersey. (Sometimes I do tend to over-worry when it comes to players coming back from even the smallest of injuries.)
There is, though, that Cancelo tries to grit his teeth through a game where he’s not totally 100 percent and the attacking talent that Manchester United has available even without Romelu Lukaku proves to be quite the challenge.
Knowing just how good and important that Cancelo has proven to be through his first batch of games in a Juventus jersey, seeing him playing at 100 percent is going to go soooooo, sooooo far when it comes to helping Group H’s current leaders get through to the knockout round with plenty of room to spare.
When: Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018
Where: Allianz Stadium, Turin, Italy
Official kickoff time: 9 p.m. local time in Italy and across Europe; 8 p.m. in the United Kingdom; 3 p.m. Eastern Time 12 noon Pacific Time
HOW TO WATCH
Television: TNT, Univision, Univision Deportes (United States); BT Sport 2 (United Kingdom); RAI Uno, Sky Calcio 2, Sky Sport Uno (Italy)
Online/mobile: B/R Live, Watch TNT, Univision Deportes En Vivo, Univision NOW (United States); DAZN (Canada); BT Sport Live (United Kingdom); SKY Go Italia, RAI Play (Italy)
Other live viewing options can be found here, and as always, you can also follow along with us live and all the stupid things we say on Twitter. If you haven’t already, join the community on Black & White & Read All Over, and join in the discussion below.