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Champions League Preview: Juventus vs. Ajax

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Just in case you felt your blood pressure going up again, it’s because the Champions League is back again.

Juventus v Club de Atletico Madrid - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

It is pretty funny — or whatever work you want to choose to go here — how things can change from one Champions League preview to another.

The theme of the last one was easy: Juventus was in serious trouble, and very much needed to be perfect if the club didn’t want their first season in years being all in on the Champions League coming to an end much, much earlier than anybody who calls Turin their current home was hoping for.

Because of what happened on March 12, arguably the best Juventus game we’ve seen all season long, I am now writing this Champions League preview. And, as much doom and gloom as there might have been in the days and then hours leading up to the second leg against Atlético Madrid, there isn’t any of that now. Juventus has reached the Champions League quarterfinals, and plenty of people are again tipping them for European glory a couple of months from now.

It’s natural, I guess, to think that way seeing as Juve were on the brink of elimination and roared back in such fashion that it pretty much declared their European intentions right in front of our eyes. A season that hasn’t had many memorable game will be highlighted by what happened in Turin a month ago.

But, as much as we enjoyed that game, the end goal is that it was just a step in the process.

For Juventus, the knockout stages at the Wanda Metropolitano in Madrid.

And, as we’ve been hearing from the summer months on, that’s where Juventus want to be the first weekend of June.

(Same here, by the way.)

Juventus obviously enter the first leg far from a full-strength side. Their best defender and captain, Giorgio Chiellini, was not called up due to an injury he suffered in training on Monday. Arguably their most in-form midfielder at the moment, Emre Can, was not called up due to an injury he suffered in Saturday’s comeback win over Milan.

It’s far from the most ideal kind of situation that Max Allegri has in front of him. But it’s also a situation that Allegri has seen plenty of the last handful of weeks as Juve’s tried to work its way through a whole host of injuries.

Either way, Juventus won’t just have to weather the storm of their captain not at the back, but also try and slow down an Ajax team that is coming off a remarkable round of 16 showing where they guaranteed that this edition of the Champions League will see a different team lifting the trophy than the previous three. They’re young, they’re talented, they press the hell out of the opposition and they’re obviously full of confidence based on the simple fact of what they did in the last round.

Ajax is quite the impressive team — both for the individual talent and the collective unit they have shown they are this season.

But, when it all clicks, same goes for the one Allegri will be managing Wednesday night.

Maybe, just maybe, the date April 10 will become an easy reference to what happened as March 12 has over the last four weeks. That sure as hell would be nice — so would going back to Turin knowing Juve won’t need a super-human effort to keep their European aspirations alive.

GOOD NEWS

It’s the Champions League quarterfinals!

BAD NEWS

Injuries are stupid. This is the 104,565th confirmation of that.

Juventus v Club de Atletico Madrid - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

THREE KEYS

1) The health (and effectiveness) of Cristiano Ronaldo

Of course, no matter who else is injured, Juventus playing in the Champions League is going to revolve around Cristiano Ronaldo.

The last time we saw Ronaldo on the field, he was pulling up lame in his return to international duty with Portugal. Juventus have been rather coy — and understandably so — with the details of his rehab and progression to full health. Max Allegri’s comments have leaned more toward how much he hopes Ronaldo will be healthy rather than guarantees about his status for the first leg against Ajax.

And, then the squad list came out and Ronaldo’s name was there.

Not that it was a surprise at all. If you were to pick a match for Ronaldo to return in, this would be the one. And I have a feeling that, despite the big-ish kind of feel to the Milan fixture over the weekend, Ronaldo had always circled the first leg against Ajax as the game where he marked his return to Juventus’ starting lineup.

Now, it’s about just how effective Ronaldo can be.

There’s no doubting that he will be up for this game because the Champions League knockout rounds is where the dude feasts on things. This is where Ronaldo has become one of the game’s best-ever players. But, the fact still remains that the guy hasn’t played for a couple of weeks, and as much as we know he’s a cyborg who is conditioned unlike few in this game, it will be interesting to see just how lively he is after a couple of weeks of injury rehab.

And hey, maybe we get to see Ronaldo with this incredibly exciting version of an in-form Moise Kean at some point against Ajax. That should be fun, right?

2) Daniele Rugani stepping in for Giorgio Chiellini

Although the sample size is small, Juventus has shown they can survive in games without Ronaldo this season.

Although the sample size is equally as small, Juventus’ ability to survive without Chiellini has been ... not great.

With Chiellini injured and not making the trip to Amsterdam, this is the latest chance for Rugani — and his brand new contract extension — to try and be at least a somewhat worthy stand-in for Juventus’ incredibly valuable captain.

Based on the fact that Chiellini has been fantastic this season and his central defense partner, Leonardo Bonucci, has been not-so-fantastic or anything close to it, Juve’s going to need a mammoth defensive effort from all parties involved to keep Ajax off the scoreboard.

There’s obvious part about it being a downgrade from Chiellini to Rugani, and that’s not exactly something that takes any kind of deep diving into WhoScored stat logs to figure out. There’s no avoiding that. Chiellini has been so good that very few central defenders in the world would come close to being the kind of replacement level for Juve’s captain.

We don’t know how long Chiellini will be out. It could be a one-game thing and then he’s back for the second leg next week. But, with so much riding on this first leg, let’s just hope that the Rugani that shows up is the one that has people still thinking he has the potential to be a player that can be useful going forward.

Genoa CFC v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

3) Preventing another implosion away from home in the first leg

Wouldn’t it be nice to have Juventus return home and not have your nervous system absolutely in tatters because they just crapped the bed in the first leg?

Yeah, I have a feeling you’re not going to be disagreeing there.

As great as the comeback against Atlético Madrid was, I’m going to go out on a limb here and just assume that nobody who sees things through bianconero-colored glasses wants to see another situation like that be necessary for Juventus to make the next round of the Champions League.

Juventus are from full strength. We know that. We know that it won’t be as simple as it may seem because many project Juve to be the superior team against Ajax. Juve are without their best defender, one of their best and in-form midfielders and not exactly coming off impressive win after impressive win in Serie A following the second leg against Atlético Madrid.

It is most certainly a case of waiting to see just how much Juventus can crank things up after pretty much coasting through Serie A fixtures the last couple of weeks. They were able to do it in the second leg against Atléti, putting forward easily one of their best performances of the season.

Now, it’s about preventing what happened in the opening 90 minutes against Atlético Madrid so that what happened in the second leg isn’t all that necessary.

MATCH INFO

When: Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Where: Johan Cruijff ArenA, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Official kickoff time: 9 p.m. local time in the Netherlands and across Europe; 8 p.m. in the United Kingdom; 3 p.m. Eastern Time; 12 Noon Pacific Time

HOW TO WATCH

Television: Galavision (United States); BT Sport 3 (United Kingdom); RAI Uno, Sky Calcio 2, Sky Sport Uno

Online/mobile: B/R Live, Univision Deportes En Vivo (United States); DAZN (Canada); BT Sport Live (United Kingdom); RAI Play, 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.