It’s the Champions League knockout rounds, boys and girls. Juventus, one of the two Serie A teams left going in Europe’s premier club competition, will be facing English opposition in said knockout rounds for the first time in nearly a decade. That time it was Chelsea, this time around it’s another one of the clubs London calls home.
We’ve know about Juventus vs. Tottenham ever since the Round of 16 draw happened in December. That was nearly two months ago now.
Juventus has seen Tottenham the last two seasons, so if you think they’re going into their Champions League Round of 16 tie against Spurs totally blind then that’s a little naive. The thing is, though, those games have come in late-July and early-August in 2016 and 2017, respectively, so obviously the biggest point of concentration of those “games” was simply getting match fit.
There’s a little more than match fitness on the line come Tuesday night in Turin.
We saw Juventus do Juventus things in the group stage back in September, October, November and then December. They basically took their room for error down to the wire, with only a win over Olympiacos in Greece on the final day of the group stage being the difference between playing in the Champions League knockout stages and heading off to the Europa League in the new year.
Juventus might be good enough to do that in the group stage against teams we know they’re better than because there’s almost always going to be a next game to make up for it.
Come the knockout round, Juventus doing Juventus things doesn’t always fly.
We know Tottenham is a formidable opponent. Say what you want about them being from the English Premier League and that English teams don’t always perform the best the last few years in the knockout round. But Spurs, they’re good. They’re well coached. They’ve got attacking talent. They’ve got talent in the midfield. Their defense might not be the best Juventus sees this season, but so be it.
All I know for sure is that I’d much rather have Juventus’ overall form being what it is now at the start of the knockout phase rather than what it was when at the start of the group stage. Juventus couldn’t really do much right at the start of the season other than score goals. These days, Juve are allowing next to nothing defensively while picking up win after win despite dealing with injuries up and down the roster. (miss u Paulo)
Just as is the case in Serie A, Juventus are quite good at home when it comes to playing in the Champions League. There’s not the same dominance when it comes to goal differential, but when you compare the wins to the losses, there’s most certainly things leaning in one direction.
No Paulo Dybala.
No Blaise Matuidi.
I know there are other injuries on this Juventus squad — Andrea Barzagli and Stephan Lichtsteiner both weren’t called up for Tuesday’s match due to injury — but those two guys above are two of the most important players this Juve squad currently has.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
1) Giorgio Chiellini and Medhi Benatia vs. Harry Kane and Co.
I love mocking English players as much as the next guy who sits on his laptop for hours on end trying to write about this game. But dammit, Harry Kane is really, really good — and there’s no need to look further than this past weekend’s North London Derby win over Arsenal for confirmation of that.
Of course, as we’ve already talked about on this here corner of the internet, Spurs are more than just Kane and his goal scoring exploits.
But, with that being said, he’s obviously a huge part to Tottenham’s success and the kind of striker who can take over a game even if he’s given just a couple of scoring chances throughout the course of the 90 minutes.
The good thing going for Juventus is, no matter what kind of attack that they’ve faced over the last 2 1⁄2 months is the fact that their defense has been racking up clean sheets like they’re going out of style. By now, it’s not just fun with a small sample size when it comes to how Juve’s defense has rebounded from a truly un-Juventus-like first two months of the season where they were leaking goals on a regular basis.
All of that is well in the past now.
And thank goodness it is.
But as CH noted in his tactical preview, Spurs can give you lots of different looks based on their attacking players outside of just going through Kane. Maybe that means there won’t be complete defensive dominance on Juventus’ part. Maybe there will be more of the same where Gigi Buffon doesn’t have to do much of anything outside of taking a few goal kicks and playing a small part in distributing the ball out of the back.
But seeing as Juve has allowed all of one goal in all competitions since the first day of December, I sure as hell want that streak to continue. It’s just so ... Italian. (And seeing as Juventus are playing English opposition on Tuesday, I think we’ll hear the “Italians sure do know how to defend!” line a couple of times during the game.)
2) Which winger is Max Allegri going to go with?
There aren’t a lot of squad selection debates going on these days. Part of that is due to the fact that a good number of players are out injured and the depth of this squad has been significantly cut down. But it’s also because, right now, the starting lineup is pretty damn easy to figure out.
Except for one spot. And that would be out on the right wing.
Who should start on the right wing against Tottenham?
This poll is closed
Because Douglas Costa was on his way back from a minor injury it allowed Bernardeschi to get some much-needed playing time. And, for the most part, Bernardeschi made the most of his chance to get some quality minutes, with his free kick against his former club last Friday probably being the highlight of his season to date.
But as we also saw in the Fiorentina game, Costa is back and available for selection having come off the bench in the second half.
Now, the thing we don’t know is if Costa is ready for a heavy amount of minutes again, which will obviously be one of the biggest determining factors on him starting or not.
If he is, then this is going to be quite the interesting decision for more than just one reason. That’s mostly because I would like to think the way Bernardeschi has played in his last two starts has given Allegri a pretty good idea of what he’s capable of when he’s out on the field for more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time. Whether that’s enough to sway things in Bernardeschi’s direction, I don’t know.
It’s all going to be interesting, though.
A lot of the predicted lineups being thrown out there by the Italian media in the build-up to Tottenham’s visit to Allianz Stadium has Costa starting on the right wing. That could very well be the case, and I’d be okay with that. It’s not like there’s a bad option here even though Bernardeschi and Costa are two different kinds of wingers.
3) Can Gonzalo Higuain get it done on the Champions League stage?
Ah, yes. Time to dust off the age-old “Higuain always chokes on the big stage” narrative that we hear all the time.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that it’s a lock that Higuain is going to be an absolute monster against Tottenham because it’s not like I have history on my side. Lord knows we have seen Higuain play well before Champions League games and then do next to nothing when said European fixture actually arrives.
That’s the inner-skeptic coming out in me.
The inner-optimist, though, it’s telling me this: Higuain has found goal scoring form once again, and like I said after the Fiorenitna win, it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Yes, I know it’s optimistic to expect Higuain to be a protagonist in the Champions League when he has so many examples of complete duds being thrown out there in the past. When he’s scoring goals like he has been doing over the last few weeks, I guess it’s easy to think that some really good form will offset any kind of previous struggles that Higuain has had.
That’s the catch with Higuain. It always has been and always will be.
Maybe we should be expecting the worst possible scenario and then be completely surprised when he does something good like score the game-winning goal. You know, some kind of reverse psychology type of deal.
Whatever works, right?
MY STARTING LINEUP
Juventus XI (4-3-3): Gianluigi Buffon; Mattia de Sciglio, Medhi Benatia, Giorgio Chiellini, Alex Sandro; Sami Khedira, Miralem Pjanic, Claudio Marchisio; Federico Bernardeschi, Gonzalo Higuain, Mario Mandzukic
Location: Allianz Stadium, Turin, 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: Fox Sports 1, ESPN Deportes (United States); TSN4, TSN5, RDS (Canada); BT Sport 2 (United Kingdom); PremiumSport HD (Italy)
Online/Mobile: WatchESPN, ESPN3 USA, FOX Sports GO, FOX Soccer Match Pass (United States); TSN GO, RDS GO (Canada); BT Sport Live (United Kingdom); Premium Play (Italy)
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