Just as I was getting into my car to get into work on Friday afternoon, I got a notification on my phone. It was from the ESPN app, which means it was obviously about one of my favorite sports teams doing something that either makes me happy or will likely get me angry. When it came to Juventus, it was a question that was kind of predictable:
Can Juventus win without Ronaldo?
My first thought in response was, outside of trying to pay attention to the oncoming traffic as I backed out of my driveway — I live on a busy street! — was also pretty predictable:
Y’all know that Juventus plays Empoli, right?
Yes, it is true that Juventus will likely be without Cristiano Ronaldo for the next couple of games as we again start the countdown to another Champions League knockout round game. And yes, anything Ronaldo-related — good, bad or down the middle — will be the leading headline pretty much everywhere because, as you’d expect, it comes with the territory.
But, even without Ronaldo — who suffered a minor muscle injury while on international duty for the first time since the 2018 World Cup — Juventus will go on and they will be playing a team that is all of one point out of the relegation zone entering the weekend.
So, as much as some folks want to make it about Ronaldo, this isn’t about Juve trying to survive the weekend without their singular star player. Nah, none of that really.
With three fixtures in the matter of eight days prior to the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal against Ajax in Amsterdam, this is about Juventus setting themselves up
And remember this, too: Juventus enters the weekend, even coming off a completely craptastic showing in a 2-0 loss to Genoa two weeks ago, 15 points up on second-place Napoli with 10 league fixtures to go this season.
The last time we saw Juventus, it wasn’t pretty — at all. There have been a good number of candidates for the “Worst Game of the Season” distinction, and the loss to Genoa two weeks ago was right up there with any of them. It was the kind of somewhat predictable showing after the comeback against Atlético Madrid many probably expected — especially when you consider how much mental and physical energy Juve’s players had to expend just to even give themselves a chance on March 12.
In these next three games, it’s pretty easy what Juve’s objectives are:
- Stay 100 percent healthy so that Ronaldo is pretty much the only injury we have to update between now and the 10th day of April.
- Make sure that the performance against Genoa will officially become a thing of the past.
- Did somebody say something about staying healthy?
This is the beauty of going into the stretch run with such a big lead atop the Serie A table. I’ve said it before, and I will continue to say it because there’s not really any signs — or possibility — of Juventus choking away a double-digit lead in Serie A with two months to go in the season.
So, even without Ronaldo, Juventus will take the Allianz Stadium field for the first time since that thrilling night against Atlético Madrid looking to do the same. Maybe not by the same scoreline, and obviously with not as much riding on it as that round of 16 tie did, but when it comes to getting back on the right foot, Max Allegri wants it to happen Saturday night.
He’s not the only one, either.
With Ronaldo on the shelf for a couple of games, there are minutes to be had. The likelihood is that Mario Mandzukic, Paulo Dybala and Federico Bernardeschi will get the bulk of the playing time the next three games, but it’s gonna be awfully hard for Allegri to explain not playing Moise Kean all that much knowing full well what the 19-year-old just did on international duty with Italy.
I’m not starting to get nervous, you’re starting to get nervous about the first leg against Ajax. Seriously, I’m not, you are.
1) Getting Paulo Dybala to be more like Paulo Dybala
Allegri made it a point of emphasis to both compliment and do a little motivating of Dybala during his pre-match press conference on Friday:
Dybala? I talked to Paulo. He knows that this is an important month and Juventus needs the real Dybala. He has always been important for us this season; playing and sacrificing. He will definitely have a great season finale.
There is no denying that the Dybala of old hasn’t exactly been the Dybala of this season. Call it an evolution to a different kind of attacking player. Call it Dybala simply struggling within a team that has a star like Ronaldo in it. Call it whatever you want, really.
But, when it comes to the final two months of the season, it’s pretty easy to figure out that Dybala getting back to being the Dybala we know he can be will make Juventus even that much more dangerous of a team on the biggest of stages.
We know what Dybala can do once he gets thing rolling and he hits a rich vein of form.
So maybe, just maybe, with Ronaldo on the sidelines and watching from the stands the next couple of games, that’s the thing that gets Dybala going again.
Whatever works at this point, right?
The more Dybala Mask the better, in my book.
2) Getting Alex Sandro to be more like Alex Sandro
In the first few weeks after Sandro signed his contract extension in late December, he looked like the same guy who had been lighting up the left wing for his first couple of seasons in Turin. He was playing inspired, high-level football again after weeks and months — and close to a season — of not exactly being close to his best.
Since those very, very good performances we’re ... back to where we were before the contract extension became official.
The thing with Sandro is that he’s been so good for so many games in a Juventus jersey is that a drop in form is just that much more noticeable. And, for somebody like Sandro, the really good showings after the contract extension seem more and more like a flash in the pan rather than something we’d expect more often than not.
So, what now? Well, maybe a call-up to the Brazilian national team gave him a shot in the arm when it comes to getting back into some kind of positive form. Or, maybe Sandro’s level of performances will just continue to be what they have been for the better part of the last couple of seasons.
It’s not like that’s necessarily a completely bad thing, but it’s not totally the Sandro we know.
And, with Leonardo Spinazzola playing quite well for both club and country over the last month, it’s not like Sandro doesn’t have somebody snipping at his heels to try and get some more playing time the final two months of the 2018-19 season.
3) Getting Mario Mandzukic to be more like Mario Mandzukic
OK, I’m guilty. Three’s a trend and I won’t hold back from admitting it.
As we discussed at the beginning of the international break, Mandzukic looks tired. He has played a lot of minutes over the last 12 or 18 months and, on top of that, had to deal with an injury to boot.
Now, with Ronaldo out, we’re not totally sure which direction Allegri will go with his tactics. Allegri could play Dybala and Bernardeschi behind Mandzukic in a Christmas tree-like formaiton. Or, Allegri could play Dybala and Bernardeschi on either side of Mandzukic in his usual 4-3-3 formation that he’s pretty much stuck with all season long.
No matter what formation Allegri ends up being, seeing how Mandzukic plays after this two-week international break will be huge for Juventus now that the stretch run of the season is pretty much here.
We know of Mandzukic’s big-game reputation both domestically and in the Champions League. We know that Mandzukic’s impact can’t be measure by simple goals and assists and that it will always be that way.
But, with Ronaldo out, Mandzukic will likely be playing as centrally as he has all season. And, with that means he will either thrive off the creativity of Dybala and Bernardeschi, or some more games without any kind of production will do nothing to quiet those cries for Kean to get more playing time as a No. 9.
Hopefully the rest did some good. We all know the guy needed it.
I mean, he has to be feeling better after a couple of weeks off without any games, right? The dude, dare I say, was spotted smiling at training this week.
SERIOUSLY. THE GUY IS SMILING. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. THERE IS PHOTOGRAPHIC EVIDENCE OF IT.
When: Saturday, March 30, 2019
Where: Allianz Stadium, Turin, Italy
Official kickoff time: 6 p.m. local time in Italy and across Europe; 5 p.m. in the United Kingdom; 1 p.m. Eastern Time; 10 a.m. Pacific Time
HOW TO WATCH
Television: TLN (Canada); Sky Calcio 1, Sky Sport Serie A, Sky Supercalcio HD (Italy)
Online/mobile: ESPN+ (United States); DAZN (Canada); Premier Sports 1 (United Kingdom); SKY Go Italia (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.