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Champions League Preview: Juventus vs. Ajax

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Can Juventus find some more knockout round magic at home? They better, or else a season with so much concentration on the Champions League will end abruptly.

Ajax v Juventus - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: First Leg Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images

As compared to the round of 16, Juventus’ situation heading into the second leg of their Champions League quarterfinal against Ajax is better. It’s not much better, but it’s better. It’s better in the sense that I’m not sitting here thinking that a superhuman and perfect kind of performance is going to be the only thing that sees the team running away with the Serie A title continuing to compete on multiple fronts this season.

That’s just what happens when you’ve got an away goal in your back pocket.

Juventus’ latest judgement day on the European stage is just about upon us once again. With a 1-1 aggregate lead, Juve don’t need the mammoth three-goal kind of turnaround to make sure that their place in the next round of the Champions League is secured. Instead, the only thing Juventus needs to make sure happens is that they beat Ajax or don’t allow any goals. A scoreless draw will do just fine. A 1-0 win in favor of Juventus will do just fine, too. Hell, even a 7-6 Juventus win will see the Old Lady advance to the Champions League semifinals for the third time during Max Allegri’s incredibly-accomplished tenure as manager.

To get there, though, Juve’s gotta beat one of the most naturally-gifted teams they’ve faced in years.

On one end, you have a collective of young talent in Ajax looking to eliminate a European heavyweight for the second straight round.

On the other end of the spectrum, Juventus’ preseason goal of a deep Champions League run and possibly lifting the trophy with big ears is put to the test once more.

The difference between the second leg last round and the second leg this round is that Juventus doesn’t have to be perfect. They weren’t perfect in the first leg last Wednesday night, yet only a Joao Cancelo-inspired mistake was what led to Ajax getting their only goal of the game. Sure, it probably should have been more — that save Wojciech Szczesny made in the first half may prove to be one of his most important of the season — but as we get ready for the second leg, the scoreboard looks like this:

Juventus 1, Ajax 1.

That is better than the last time we all sat here for a match preview entering the second leg of a Champions League round.

It’s not a whole lot better where you can just sit back and not chew off all of your nails during the course of the next 90 minutes (or more) of European football.

But, hey, it’s something that’s reason for a little more optimism than the last round. And, that second leg turned out to be one of Juventus’ games of the season. So, if this next second leg comes close to being anything like the last second leg, then there will be another second leg to play in the not-so-distant future.

Makes sense, right?

GOOD NEWS

Juventus heading into the second leg against Atlético Madrid: Down 2-0 on aggregate

Juventus heading into the second leg against Ajax: Even at 1-1 on aggregate

That’s what I like to call progress. Hooray for progress!

BAD NEWS

Well, injuries are causing everybody a worry because of course they are. No Giorgio Chiellini. No Mario Mandzukic. There’s your two main captains right there.

And, just like we said last round, this could very well be Juventus’ final European game this season, which means we’re going to be left to wonder if this season was a success if Ajax somehow comes out victorious.

THREE KEYS

1) Can Juve handle Ajax’s pressure?

As we’ve come to know about Juventus over the last few years, high-pressure opposition might as well be one of the worst matchups there is for Allegri’s squad.

And last Wednesday night was the reminder of that.

It’s not like Juventus didn’t know what they were getting into, either. And it’s not like going into a hostile crowd with a spot in the next round of the Champions League is going to deter Ajax from doing what they do best.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise to Allegri or any Juve player, too.

Allegri showed from the first to the second leg against Atlético Madrid just how well he is at adjusting in between fixtures. Obviously, when it came to the second leg in the round of 16, the circumstances were such that Juventus didn’t really have a choice in how they played — they had to attack, they had to take command early and they knew they had to score at least three times if they wanted to advance.

It’s certainly going to be interesting as to just what Allegri has in mind to not just manage Ajax’s pressure, but just deal with the aggregate scoreline being even at 1-1 rather than down 2-0. Will Juve go for the outright lead early? Will they try to absorb pressure? Whatever happens, dealing with Ajax’s pressure will be crucial — and not just because it led to plenty of mistakes in the first leg.

Juventus v AC Milan - Serie A Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

2) Mario Mandzukic Paulo Dybala or Moise Kean?

This was supposed to be a Mandzukic vs. Kean debate.

And then the squad list came out with Mandzukic nowhere to be found due to an injury that Max Allegri revealed to us during his pre-match press conference.

Regardless, ahis point last week, the possibility of Kean starting over Mandzukic seemed like just us fans trying to get ahead of ourselves. But now it’s about the Dybala or Kean decision more than anything else. Could Kean, in the midst of a red-hot goal scoring form, actually start a Champions League game after playing sparingly in Europe up to this point?

Maybe.

I don’t know.

Is it a thing?

Could it really be a thing?

Are we hoping it’s a thing?

LET’S JUST FORCE THIS INTO BEING A THING.

When it comes to form, Dybala and Kean are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Dybvala didn’t do much at all after coming off the bench in the second half against Ajax in the first leg. It was the kind of game where he was unable to make any kind of impact during the course of half-hour block of time where Juventus needed some kind of offensive spark after Ajax leveled the score all of seconds after the second half began. On top of that, it was quick to develop into the kind of game that was suited more toward Kean’s skillset rather than Mandzukic.

Does that mean Allegri will go with No. 18 rather than No. 10?

I really have no idea at this point.

But, when it comes to Kean himself essentially forcing the issue into more playing time, you can’t ask anything more of the kid right now. He’s getting chances to play, he’s scoring goals in those games and, probably the best of them all, he’s become an option that is proving to be more than just a little useful in games where Allegri turns to him.

We’re at the point now where Kean shouldn’t just be playing because Allegri wants to rotate the squad. We’re at the point now where Kean starting big games just makes sense.

(All of that being said, my gut keeps telling me that it will be Dybala, not Kean, starting Tuesday night.)

3) Can Juventus’ fullbacks play somewhere close to their potential?

Short answer: Yes, of course ... in theory.

The past few weeks haven’t exactly been all that kind to Joao Cancelo and Alex Sandro, the latter having a rough stretch of form that goes all the way back to a few weeks after he signed his contract extension in December. Sandro, to his credit, had one of his better games of the last couple of months in the first leg against Ajax, but it’s not exactly like that’s saying a whole lot based on the alternatives.

For the sake of conversation, let’s just revisit Cancelo’s rating after last Wednesday’s game from the official BWRAO match review:

JOAO CANCELO - 4.5. Barring the six seconds that contained his assist, he was shockingly poor Wednesday night. Gave the ball away time and again, both through bad passes and getting caught in possession — like he was for Ajax’s goal — and was out of position on defense on multiple occasions. He can’t allow himself to lose focus like that at this level.

It was the best and worst of Cancelo all within a pair of game highlights. Sandro, however, was so occupied by the Ajax press that his ability to attack was rather limited, something that we haven’t been able to say all that often during the course of his Juventus career.

We know what Ajax will do — they will pressure, they will want to possess the ball and they will want to attack from all areas after the likes of Frenkie de Jong are able to supply service from the midfield. It’s up to Juventus’ Chiellini-less defense, one that held its own a week ago in Amsterdam even though there were some nervy moments, prevent anything that will make it more than just an interesting aggregate scoreline from happening.

Knowing how involved Ajax’s wide players were, a lot of the onus will fall on Sandro and Cancelo.

Depending on how you think about that, then it probably plays a big role in how you might think Juventus will end up doing during Ajax’s visit to Turin.

Ajax v Juventus - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: First Leg Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images

MATCH INFO

When: Tuesday, April 16, 2019

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

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