We’re quickly approaching the point in the season where we can truly start counting the amount of Serie A games remaining in quick fashion. When Juventus hosts Atalanta on Sunday, it’s the 26th of 38 league games, meaning just over a quarter of the season remains. The stretch drive might not be officially here, but it’s certainly approaching rapidly.
When it comes to what Juventus will face over the next two-plus weeks, that’s most definitely a massive segment of the schedule.
- Seire A fixture against Atalanta.
- Leg 2 of the Coppa Italia semifinals against Atalanta.
- Serie A fixture against Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico.
- Leg 2 of the Champions League Round of 16 against Tottenham at Wembley.
Those are four games in three different competitions. And, by my tally, they are quite important for their own respective reasons.
Between now and the end of the third week of March, Juventus will know whether their Champions League campaign will have reached the quarterfinals, if they have made another Coppa Italia final and just how many points they are ahead or behind Napoli entering the final international break of the season.
These are all incredibly important. But seeing what clubs those are above and the fact that March is just a few days away, it doesn’t take that long to figure all of that out.
There are five games over the next three weeks before that fixture against relegation battlers S.P.A.L. arrives. To say they are important is an obvious fact. There’s the so much riding on the next three weeks that we could pretty much write the same thing in the build-up every time out and hit publish without much of a difference.
But, for the first two games of that stretch, it’s against the same Atalanta team that will certainly have a bitter taste left in its mouth from how they went out of the Europa League against Borussia Dortmund earlier in the week. (Let’s just not talk about the extracurricular things that happened during that game, shall we?)
It’s the same old deal as the past 450 Serie A fixtures this season...
Juventus wins, first place is theirs for a little bit. And then we look at whatever club Napoli is playing at the time and become their No. 1 fans. So, in this case, we want Juventus to win and then we want Cagliari to at least not lose on Monday night.
Seems simple enough to figure out, right?
Juventus hasn’t lost a game since the second-to-last weekend of November. That’s good.
Here’s a list of players not called up due to injury:
- Mattia De Sciglio
- Juan Cuadrado
- Gonzalo Higuain
- Federico Bernardeschi
That’s a pretty good base to start on if you were going to put together a starting lineup full of Juventus players. Injuries remain pretty damn stupid, IMHO.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
1) O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree...?
There is no Gonzalo Higuain, so what’s Max supposed to do?
Well, for one, he could very well stay with the 4-3-3, which probably should have happened when Tottenham came to Allianz Stadium a couple of weeks ago. (Yes, I am still bitter about that, thanks for asking.)
Or, considering the only natural prima punta up for selection is the now-healthy Mario Mandzukic — which is kinda ironic seeing as he has rarely played as an official target man the last 14 months or so — a shift to accommodate those available to him could be in order.
One of those options would be a 4-3-2-1 with Paulo Dybala and Douglas Costa playing behind Mandzukic as we see Juventus with a Christmas theme on the final weekend of February.
The thing is, ever since Allegri has gone with the 4-3-3 on a full-time basis this season, he hasn’t changed it all that much. It hasn’t really mattered who is available, it’s basically been a 4-3-3 and GTFO kind of approach for Max. That has caused us to debate where Dybala may be playing since he’s not going to suddenly displace Higuain in the starting lineup. It’s made us wonder when we’d see Douglas Costa and Bernardeschi playing at the same time on either wing for more than just a couple of minutes at a time.
No matter what, though, it’s been 4-3-3.
With what seems like the logical scenario this weekend being Mandzukic sliding over from the left wing and leading the attack against Atalanta, it’s only natural to think that something could change. Note, I’m saying that it could change, not that it will. I’m done trying to predict what Allegri will do because I’m batting about .150 this season trying to do that.
Or maybe we’ll see Dybala playing as a false 9/center forward type of deal. I don’t know. I’ll stop throwing stuff against this certain Atalanta-themed wall and trying to make formation-related things stick.
2) The likely return of Paulo Dybala to the starting lineup.
No matter what role he is deployed in against Atalanta, there seems to be no doubt about this one. Seven days after making his return from a lengthy injury absence when he came on as a second-half substitute, Dybala seems like he could very well make his return to the starting lineup.
This is good. Pretty good. Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good.
However, it’s not a lock that Dybala will start.
I think it should be, but it’s not at this point in time. I say that because...
In the last 24 hours, the amount of predicted starting lineups La Gazzetta dello Sport has thrown out there has rivaled the number of games Juventus has played before Napoli on any given weekend the last two months. Dybala has been in there in a 4-3-2-1, he’s been the center forward in a 4-3-3 and, as of this preview being published, he’s not even in the predicted lineup with Alex Sandro being pushed up as a left winger for the second straight Sunday.
So, basically, it’s a guessing game right now.
If Dybala were a lock in the starting lineup, I’d be saying this: With the second leg against Tottenham a little over a week away, the fact that Dybala will be able to play a good chunk of minutes before the trip to London will most certainly be some good news. (No more Larry David references, I promise.) He needs the minutes both to regain some on-field sharpness — we saw the lack of that last Sunday against Torino — as well as simple match fitness.
It sure would be nice if he could do that against Atalanta. And not Wednesday against Atalanta, but Sunday against Atalanta.
3) The return of Blaise Matuidi to the starting lineup.
Oh, Blaise. How we’ve missed you.
Juventus’ midfield has been out of sorts since Matuidi was forced out of action due to injury three weeks ago. It’s not all because Matuidi got injured against Sassuolo, but his absence has most certainly played a role in Juve not having the same kind of effectiveness in the center of the park like they had been for the majority of their current unbeaten run that date backs to the final week of November.
Allegri didn’t give many hints as to what his lineup is going to look like against Atalanta on Sunday, but he did say that Matuidi will be starting alongside Miralem Pjanic and a yet-to-be-determined-player in midfield. And that sound you hear off in the distance is the sigh of relief knowing that one of the more underrated pieces to Juve’s starting lineup will be back in the fold.
Juve have missed Matuidi. So very much.
I don’t know if I can put it any kind of simpler way than that. The defensive coverage and energy he brings to this team has been the most noticeable things, but just the fact that Juve won’t have to rely on Pjanic and a completely out-of-form Sami Khedira — who has not been called up for Sunday’s game — for everything is going to be a pretty nice development heading into this crucial three-week stretch.
Basically, don’t get injured ever again, Blaise. You’re too valuable to this team right now.
MY STARTING LINEUP
Juventus XI (4-3-2-1): Gianluigi Buffon; Stephan Lichtsteiner, Medhi Benatia, Giorgio Chiellini, Alex Sandro; Claudio Marchisio, Miralem Pjanic, Blaise Matuidi; Douglas Costa, Paulo Dybala; Mario Mandzukic
Location: Allianz Stadium, Turin, Italy
Kickoff time: 6 p.m. local time in Italy; 5 p.m. in the United Kingdom; 12 p.m. on the East Coast; 9 a.m. on the West Coast
TV: beIN SPORTS USA, Rai Italia America (United States); beIN Sports Canada, Rai Italia America (Canada); BT Sport 3 (United Kingdom); Sky Supercalcio HD, Sky Sport 1 HD Italia, Sky Calcio 1, PremiumSport HD (Italy)
Online/Mobile: beIN SPORTS CONNECT U.S.A., fuboTV (United States); beIN SPORTS CONNECT Canada, fuboTV Canada, DAZN Canada (Canada); BT Sport Live (United Kingdom); SKY Go Italia, RAI Play, Premium Play (Italy)
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